The Meaning of Herpes

Hey there Guys,

Published in on of the online paper today was a case of a lady who states she had been maliciously infected with herpes. The fact she was awarded $900,000 damages disturbs me on many, many levels. Before I go into why, let’s have a quick look at what has been reported:

A JURY has awarded an Oregon woman $900,000 in damages after a man apparently gave her herpes, The Oregonian reported Tuesday.

The plaintiff, a 49-year-old divorcee, was in search of a husband when she met a 69-year-old retired dentist from Portland on an internet dating website in 2010.

On their fourth date, and after some glasses of wine and puffs of marijuana, the two had sex.

The woman, who sued under a pseudonym, claimed her date agreed to wear a condom upon her request, but later removed it.

While they were lying in bed after the love making, he revealed he had herpes. She summarily kicked him out of her house.

Within 11 days, she had a painful outbreak, which she continues to have periodically. She took anti-viral medication, but it caused her to lose massive amounts of hair.

She has also since gained 14 kilograms from the drugs she has taken for anxiety and depression brought on by the herpes…

“We all felt he should have told her – he had the responsibility to tell her,” juror Noah Brimhall told The Oregonian.

Defence attorney Randall Vogt called his client a “heroine” for holding the “dangerous” man responsible.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people who find themselves in (her) situation simply wring their hands and do nothing,” Vogt told The Oregonian. “They know if they file a lawsuit, it’s going to be hotly contested. It’s going to be embarrassing. It’s going to be massively unpleasant.”

There are so many unpleasant elements to this case.

Please don’t think for a moment I am diminishing my disdain for herpes. It’s painful, it’s annoying and in some cases the symptoms can be severe. What disturbs me is the precedent that this case sets on many levels.

Take for example the use of “he removed the condom” as part of the evidence. While condoms can help reduce the chance of transmission they do not 100% eliminate transmission. It all depends on the position of the herpes blisters, types of sex and a variety of other factors.

For me the most disturbing element is that this poor lady has placed herself into a position of the victim, “the man was evil, she had no control”. I worry that this sets up a terrible platform for future litigation. $900,000 for what is an inconvenient yet manageable disease is a lot of money. What would the number be if she had been infected with HIV? A cold?

I highly doubt that $900,000 is going to reverse the psychological damage this lady has sustained. While I’ve never met the lady, I would imagine from her perspective I would feel anger, frustration, and the most insidious, shame. Having put herself into a position to be infected with “such a dirty disease” would bring prominent emotions.

Ultimately however, herpes is just a disease. It’s the shame she has attached that is causing her disability.

This pathological shame is a social construct that we don’t have to follow. People with herpes are not “dirty”, they simply have been infected with herpes. People with Down Syndrome are not “retarded and stupid”, they carry an extra chromosome. The same goes for HIV, hepatitis, depression and even the myths based around pimples, these are medical issues not social judgement.

Sadly we have currently created a social construct where the moment something goes wrong in our lives we immediately look for someone to blame. This toxic shame prevents people from getting tested and treated.

Clear cases of malicious intent aside, let’s look at HIV.

The one point in the cycle of HIV life cycle where a person is most able to infect another is at the time of seroconversion. At the start of infection viral load is at its highest and HIV antibodies are only just starting to be created. Even if a newly infected person was to get a HIV test during this episode there is a chance it will come back negative. This can create a false belief of non infection, of “low risk”. Sadly there have been many infections of HIV based on this false belief.

So how do we move forward?

First and foremost the most important fact to keep in mind is that diseases are exactly what they are – diseases. HIV is a virus, herpes is also a virus. Neither are indicators of personality, or of what we are like as people. It’s time we dropped the artificial layers that have been placed on these diseases.

Secondly, we need to fully understand levels of risk. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face; we know safe sex works when we don’t know our partners status, why would it not work when we do? While serosorting can be a helpful strategy for people living with HIV, some people choose to use it to discriminate.

As previously mentioned, the riskiest time for HIV transmission is the very same time the person may not know of their infection. The only time I believe someone’s HIV status is when they tell me they are positive. For all my sexual partners safe sex is my choice, and I have control of my choices.

It’s vital we take control ourselves. If you are feeling the effects of alcohol or other substances, is hooking with someone you have just met the best idea? Do you have a firm plan about what you like to do sexually if you are feeling out of control? We all have the responsibility to care not only for ourselves but each other, that can be very difficult if under the influence.

Yours in good health.

Dr George


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