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Kim's Letter to Oprah's Producer

Think about a friend, relative or significant other telling you about their experience of having chickenpox or mono as a kid.  Or how they have finally gotten over that fever blister which has been annoying them the last couple of weeks.  Now think of the same person telling you they have genital herpes.  Did that last statement cause you to have a different reaction?  It shouldn’t – because ALL of these common skin conditions are simply different manifestations of the herpes virus.  Herpes viruses are a leading cause of human viral disease, second only to influenza and cold viruses.

However, the negative stigma surrounding some types of herpes is so prevalent and powerful that it often causes the millions of HSV-positive Americans who know they have it to experience feelings of depression, despair, fear, anger and even contemplation of suicide.  The judgments, rejection and psychological burden that many experience because of this virus are often far worse and insidious than the physical manifestations.

As April is National STD Month, I would like to ask you to please do a segment on herpes.  Given Oprah’s remarkable ability to educate her viewers, I believe a single show on this “hidden epidemic” could single-handedly change the way millions of people think about this issue.  I think it would also be a powerful way to dramatically increase the public “call to action” for a cure or vaccine for this all-too-common virus.

Here are some useful statistics regarding herpes simplex virus (HSV) Types I and II (the strains commonly associated with STDs) that the public should know:

  • Between 50 to 80% of Americans have HSV-1, the strain commonly responsible for oral herpes (aka cold sores or fever blisters).  Most people contract oral herpes when they are children by receiving a kiss from a friend or relative.

  • HSV-1 can be “converted” from oral herpes in one person to genital herpes in another via oral sex.

  • 20-25% of people have HSV-2 (the strain most commonly associated with genital herpes, or GH) – although as many as 90% don't know it, because they have no symptoms.  Some sources say that as many as 1 in 3 people over the age of 30 are carriers of HSV-2.  It is estimated that 50% of Americans will carry genital herpes by 2025.

  • Women are five times more likely to get HSV than men.

  • HSV is transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact. This occurs when a contagious area comes into contact with a tiny break in the skin or mucous membrane tissue, primarily the mouth and genitals.

  • HSV can be actively transmitted by HSV-positive people with no symptoms to others via a process known as asymptomatic or subclinical viral shedding.

  • HSV can be transferred to the eyes (herpes keratitis), causing inflammation and scarring of the cornea.  Ocular herpes is the leading cause of infectious blindness in the United States, currently affecting 400,000 Americans.  There are close to 50,000 new and recurring cases occurring each year.

  • HSV can also be transferred to the hand (herpes whitlow, aka “hand herpes”) or other parts of the body (herpes gladiatorum, aka “mat herpes” or “scrum pox”) via contact between an active herpes outbreak and a cut/abrasion area on the skin.

  • HSV can cause severe, potentially fatal, issues for infants (neonatal herpes) that are vaginally delivered by mothers who have recently acquired HSV or suffer an HSV outbreak at the time of delivery.

  • Genital HSV-1 and 2 can be transferred through "outer course" (skin-to-skin contact in the genital region) as well as intercourse and oral sex. If a person thinks they can’t get genital herpes without “technically” having sex, think again!

  • Condom use reduces transmission rates by only 50% --> using condoms does NOT offer 100% protection from contracting herpes.  For example, if the location of the virus on the skin is not protected by a condom (i.e., the testicles), then HSV can be transmitted even if condoms are used.

  • HSV TESTING IS *NOT* INCLUDED IN A "FULL" STD SCREEN, UNLESS SPECIFICALLY REQUESTED. Thus, many people think they've been tested for it, when in fact they haven’t – and so may innocently tell their partner they are “STD-free”, when in fact they are not.

  • As a consequence of all of the above, "asymptomatic carriers" can unknowingly transfer the virus to others, making it one of the most communicable (and, for now, permanent) STDs. Approximately 70% of the estimated 1 million new cases of genital herpes each year are contracted in this way.

  • There is currently no cure for the herpes virus.  The commercially-available suppressive treatments simply help reduce the severity/length of the outbreaks that some herpes carriers suffer.  While these treatments are also useful in reducing viral shedding, they do NOT completely prevent the potential for herpes transmission.

  • Having HSV can compromise the immunity system: people with HSV are two to four times as likely to contract HIV than a person without the virus in their system. Think of the impact an HSV cure/vaccine would have in areas ravaged by AIDS/HIV!

Given these statistics, it seems the only practical solution to the epidemic is new treatments.  I believe a frank discussion incorporating any of these statistics could create a groundswell of activity regarding herpes.

You, as a producer of the Oprah Show, are uniquely positioned to radically change the way America thinks about what is essentially a common skin condition.  Please do what you can to educate Oprah viewers about the heavily stigmatized, incredibly common, but largely invisible herpes epidemic. We would greatly appreciate your help and support!


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