Herpes: the Undercover Epidemic

In this age of health scares and superbugs, it’s hard to be surprised by the next scary headline. However here’s one from the WHO that might still shock you: you probably have some form of herpes, an incurable infection.

Chew on that thought for a while.

According to the announcement in 2015, 67% of people under the age of 50 worldwide have herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), the kind that causes cold sores – an estimated 3.7 billion people. Meanwhile 11% of people aged 15-49, or 417 million people globally, carry HSV-2 which is largely responsible for genital herpes, a number 78 times larger than Singapore’s population (5.39 million).


Now before you panic, make sure you’re not overreacting to a herpes bogeyman. Below, we debunk some myths that contribute to herpes hype.

Myth #1: Herpes equals constant, painful outbreaks

Fact: Most people with HSV-1 or 2 don’t experience any outbreaks at all. Those that do might see painful blisters or ulcers around the mouth (HSV-1) or genitals (mostly HSV-2) which recur over time. However anti-viral medications can reduce the seriousness of the outbreaks and make them less frequent.

Myth #2: Herpes is a death sentence

Fact: Certainly an exaggeration as most people get on just fine with the herpes virus in their bodies.

However, the picture gets more complicated for pregnant women. Genital herpes (HSV-1 or 2) raise the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, and a rare neonatal herpes that can result in disability or death in newborns.

HSV-2 also raises the chances of contracting and transmitting HIV because the genital sores it causes can bleed easily, and could lead to health complications for those with weak immune systems.

So while it can be dire for some, herpes in general is not slowly killing off 3.7 billion of your fellow human beings.

Myth #3 If you have herpes, you’ve been sleeping around

Fact: Since HSV-1 can be spread simply by sharing saliva (think of the times you shared a kiss, food, fork or even a straw), this myth is bunk. As for HSV-2, since it often has no symptoms, some people may unwittingly pick it up from their partners.

Unless we want to risk assuming people who shared bubble tea, bingsu, or char kway teow were sleeping around, it’s best not to jump to conclusions even if we see a cold sore on someone’s lip as stigma can significantly impact a person’s social and dating life.
Herpes is a very common infection (about 60% of people below the age of 50 in South East Asia have HSV-1) and some of the hype around it is seriously overblown, so we should not simply assume things about the virus, or people who have it. If you or someone you know has symptoms, get checked up to know for sure (via a blood test, viral culture or DNA test). Because to ‘assume’ makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.

By Vincent Tan