Yikes! It seems like the World Health Organization is just full of bad news this week. First they shared the heartbreaking revelation that our favorite foods like chorizo and bacon could give us cancer. Now they’ve just dropped another bomb: More than half the world’s population is infected with the herpes virus that causes cold sores around the mouth.
According to new numbers shared by the WHO, 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 — or 67% of the world’s population — carry the highly infectious herpes simplex virus Type 1 (HSV-1), which can be transmitted through saliva. This is in addition to 417 million people, ages 15-49, who have HSV-2, the other form of the disease that causes genital herpes.
But before we all frantically run to the doctor's office, it’s helpful to know the difference between HSV-1 and HSV-2 — and how they are spread. Most people get HSV-1 as a infant or child. It’s usually spread by skin-to-skin contact with an adult carrying the virus. A kiss, sharing silverware, a razor or a towel can spread HSV-1. HSV-2, meanwhile, is transmitted during sex. However, you can also get genital herpes by coming in contact with HSV-1. For instance, if someone with herpes performs oral sex, this can spread HSV-1 on to the genitals.
Blisters or cold sores are the most common symptom of herpes. But just because you’ve never had a cold sore, doesn’t mean you haven’t come in contact with the virus. Our advice: Talk to your doctor about herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases. We get that the whole subject is a little embarrassing, but it’s the best way to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy.
“I got my first cold sore during my senior year of high school. I had never even kissed anyone before – it was horrible," says Maria*, a 28-year-old Miami woman who shared her story with Vivala. "I didn’t know it was herpes, but I knew that my mom and best friend had had cold sores before. Even after so much time, it’s still embarrassing when I get them because you feel like everyone is watching and judging you. I had one experience where a guy I was dating freaked out about it, so now I just tell everyone that I get cold sores before one shows up. Most people don't care, but either way, it's peace of mind.”
Dr. Marleen Temmerman, director of WHO’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research, couldn’t have said it better. “Access to education and information on both types of herpes and sexually transmitted infections is critical to protect young people’s health before they become sexually active.” And while we totally appreciate the WHO keeping us safe with their research, we do hope it will be some time before they bring on more bad news.
* This person's name was changed to protect her identity.