As unbelievable as it may sound, nearly 3.7 billion people under age 50, worldwide, are infected with herpes, according to the World Health Organization. If that isn’t bad enough, it’s also spreading, and it’s spreading fast.
First off, let’s clarify just what we’re talking about here. Most people have incorrect assumptions about the virus and what it can do to your body. In this particular case, we’re talking about the herpes simplex virus, which has two different types:
Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1)
Most people get HSV-1 as an infant or child. This virus is spread by skin-to-skin and salivary contact with an adult who already carries it. An adult does not need to have open sores to spread the virus, which is one of the main reasons it spreads so easily. Something as innocuous as a kiss on the cheek or sharing towels and eating utensils can pass the virus on. Whatever you do, do not share lip balm with anybody. Trust us.
A large number of infected people have no idea they’re carrying the virus because they don’t display symptoms. But don’t be fooled — they’re still carriers of herpes and can spread it to others.
Herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2)
A person usually gets HSV-2 through sexual contact, and about 14 per cent of sexually active adults in Canada carry HSV-2; like HSV-1, many carry the virus without even knowing it. Certain groups are more likely to get HSV-2, including women, people who have had “many” sexual partners (we’re not sure how many that entails), those who had sex for the first time at a young age, those who have another STI (sexually transmitted infection), and people who have a weakened immune system.
Genital herpes, perhaps the most scary of all, can develop if you come into close contact with HSV-1 or HSV-2. Most get it from HSV-2, since it’s contracted through sex. But with the uptick in oral sex going on, you can also potentially get HSV-1 if someone performs the act while they have a cold sore, which would spread the virus to your genitals. FUN.
Equally horrifying is the fact that mothers can pass the virus onto their offspring during childbirth. If the baby is born during the mother’s first-ever episode of genital herpes, then that child is at risk for some pretty serious complications.
CTV News’ infectious diseases expert Dr. Neil Rau says the reason global numbers are so high is that many people with herpes don’t show symptoms, but their infection stays with them for life. He says herpes is an unusual virus in that the body has no way of getting rid of it.
“It’s the type of virus that once you get it, you don’t actually clear it. It goes into a dormant state,” he said. “Most people have no symptoms, some reactivate once in a blue moon. Some people don’t reactivate but they shed the virus from time to time and that’s how they pass it to others.”
There are medications to suppress the virus and prevent outbreaks, but there is no cure nor any way to prevent infection. Antiviral treatments haven’t changed much over the last 20 years and attempts at vaccines have not been successful. WHO says it hopes this paper estimating the global burden of herpes will lead to the development of better treatments and tests, and ultimately, develop HSV vaccines.
For more information on how herpes impacts Canadians, check out the video, above.
Other mutations of the herpes virus
Yep, there are six other versions of this invasive, sneaky virus. These are wholly different from HSV-1 and -2, and one does not cause the other.
Herpes virus 3
Also known as herpes zoster, this virus causes chickenpox and the painful skin condition, shingles.
Herpes virus 4
This is also known as the Epstein-Barr virus, and is the major cause of mononucleosis or “mono.” Like HSV-1, it is transmitted through saliva, and is why it’s known as “the kissing disease.” (It also explains why college dorm residents and sports teams are the most commonly infected.)
Herpes virus 5
Called cytomegalovirus, this barely registers in people with healthy immune systems. It can also cause mono, but it is one of the most difficult complications in AIDS patients.
Herpes virus 6
This is a relatively new discovery, found in a few individuals with a variety of diseases. It causes a condition known as roseola, which is a viral disease that triggers a high fever and skin rash in small children.
Herpes virus 7
This is the mystery strain. It’s very similar to 6, and is also recently discovered. It can cause roseola as well, but as of this writing, it’s unclear what other physical effects it can cause.
Herpes virus 8
Virus 8 is found in tumours called Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a dark-bluish skin disorder that almost exclusively occurs in people with AIDS and severely lowered immune systems.