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
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
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
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
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.