“You have herpes” may be three of the most dreaded words in the English language. Getting diagnosed can feel catastrophic, as phrases like “no cure” and “it’s forever” flash through the mind. Yes, herpes is one of the most stigmatized STIs out there, with too many people assuming a diagnosis means one is promiscuous, reckless, and forced to walk around with genital sores for the rest of his or her life, like a Scarlett Letter on your nether regions.
The reality, of course, is that herpes is nothing to feel ashamed about. Also? Herpes is literally everywhere, as confirmed by a new study.
Last week, The Lancet published its Global Burden of Disease Study for 2015, a massive report that details mortality and morbidity rates associated with major diseases, injuries, and risk factors to health worldwide. It’s considered the most comprehensive epidemiological study to date, and its stats provide a clearer picture of global health issues.
The study found that genital herpes, which is usually caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1 and HSV-2), is one of eight chronic maladies that affect more than 10% of the world’s population. Other ailments on that list include tooth decay, tension-type headache, iron-deficiency anaemia, age-related and other hearing loss, migraine, refraction and accommodation disorders, and ascariasis.
In 2015 alone, the study tracked a reported 885,169,400 cases of genital herpes around the world (an 18.1% increase over the past 10 years). That’s right—not only is herpes common, right up there with tooth decay and headaches, but it’s on the rise. (Not that we’re celebrating this in any way, but the prevalence is staggering.)
In the United States alone, the CDC estimates that 1 in 6 people between the ages of 14 and 49 have genital herpes. And when you estimate the total number of people who have contracted the herpes virus, the number skyrockets. According to the World Health Organization, 67% of the world’s population under age 50—around 3.7 billion people—has been infected with herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), the version that most often leads to cold and mouth sores but can also cause genital herpes. Considering many folks still think of herpes as a horrible, grotesque STI, you might be surprised to learn that most people who have herpes don’t even know it.
“Herpes is a chronic infection that only occasionally leads to a noticeable infectious episode with symptoms,” explained Theo Vos, one of the lead authors on the study and a professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle. “Lots of people are infected and may not know about it (yet), or rarely have symptoms.”
It’s true that genital herpes can’t be “cured,” but it’s not as debilitating as pop culture makes us believe. According to the National Institutes of Health, many people never get outbreaks, or their outbreaks lessen over time. The first outbreak is usually the worst. Anti-viral medication can also help curb or suppress outbreaks. (Notably, herpes can become more dangerous if you’re pregnant or having sex with someone with HIV.)
All of this is absolutely not to say everyone should go out and have unprotected sex because herpes is no biggie. Please, I beg you, don’t do that. The point is that millions of people who have herpes have felt stigmatized and shamed for contracting what is actually a super common virus. So the next time a potential sex partner drops the h-bomb on you, don’t immediately turn tail. Instead, simply talk to the person about practicing safe sex.