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Life With Herpes: One Woman's Story

Genital herpes is the third leading infectious STD in the country, with 20 percent of adults infected. The disease can lie dormant for days or even years before painful outbreaks or flu-like symptoms cause concern. For Angela, it was two weeks.

In the summer of 1995, Angela, who was 25 at the time, felt like she had the flu and found it difficult and painful to urinate. She saw a doctor and, after being treated with several different medications for a possible bladder infection, felt worse than ever. "At the end of the three weeks I was miserable, couldn't walk and the pain was beyond description," she said.

Angela finally insisted on a vaginal examination and was diagnosed with genital herpes. A subsequent culture confirmed the diagnosis and her doctor prescribed Zovirax, which helped alleviate her initial symptoms.

She later realized she had contracted the virus from a sexual contact two weeks earlier. She was angry that her partner hadn't informed her he had herpes. Unfortunately, neither Angela nor her partner had discussed STDs. "It was a learning experience," she said. Shocked, terrified and alone, she struggled to find support and information about her disease.

Her physician wasn't helpful. "He basically handed me a box of tissues and told me my life would  never be the same and sent me on my way." She found information about genital herpes and national support groups for herpes on the American Social Health Association's (ASHA) web site. Arming herself with the facts about genital herpes allowed Angela to take charge of her own health care. In the process she educated her physicians as well, who were not always knowledgeable about treatment options.

Throughout the first year of her illness, Angela experienced numerous outbreaks and tried various medications to suppress her symptoms. She remained symptom-free for two years while taking a daily 500 mg dose of Valtrex, but she wanted freedom from her medication and quit taking the pills. Nine months after stopping the medication, she had only one minor outbreak, which went away in a few days.

The emotional effects of having genital herpes have been as painful for Angela as the physical effects. "The first year I was ashamed, got flare ups all the time and didn't have anybody I trusted to talk to about what was happening in my life," she said. Frustrated by the lack of support systems where she lived, Angela started her own support group in 1998 with assistance from ASHA, national sponsors of herpes support groups.

The HELP group meets monthly and offers a confidential environment where people can relate to others experiencing similar difficulties. The group provides up-to-date information about genital herpes, and a medical professional in the community serves as a resource. Herpes support groups allow attendees to vent their feelings, which can range from denial, depression, isolation and intense anger. Other may feel they've lost their sexual freedom. Currently, 12 to 15 people attend the meeting, including members from surrounding areas.

Hopeful Future

For Angela, educating herself about herpes was the key to moving on with her life. So was learning that despite a lifetime of consequences, herpes didn't have to define her as a person. When she began dating again, she decided not to limit herself to people with herpes. Consequently, she knew she would have to face telling a partner about her illness before becoming intimate. Deciding how and when to tell is an individual choice, but for Angela, explaining to a partner she had herpes was the only choice.

Angela dated her future husband for about 3 months before telling him she had herpes. Although she was afraid of rejection, she took the risk. Fortunately, his strong feelings for her outweighed his concerns about contracting the virus. He was actually relieved she had herpes and not HIV. Nonetheless, both partners were tested before beginning a sexual relationship. The couple dated for three years before marrying in 2001.

Two years later, in 2003, Angela gave birth to the couple's first child. Because of the virus, Angela took a daily dose of Valtrex during the last six weeks of her pregnancy. Although Angela had not had an outbreak in several years, she took Valtrex as a precaution against a possible outbreak prior to delivery. She safely delivered her daughter vaginally, as do most women with genital herpes. Cesarean sections are only recommended for women with active outbreaks at the time of delivery, to prevent the newborn from contracting the virus.

While the consequences of an infant contracting neonatal herpes can be life threatening, resulting in eye or throat infections, damage to the central nervous system, mental retardation or death, the incidence of babies contracting the illness is rare. It occurs in less than 0.1 percent of cases in the United States, according to the American Health Association. If an infant does contract neonatal herpes, medication can help prevent or reduce damage if administered early.

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