Herpes is one of the great virus crime families. There are more than ninety members that harass innumerable species, from us down to the lowliest fungi. They have been around for eons and are found in people everywhere, even in isolated primitive tribes. All have the capacity to survive for the entire lifetime of their host, hiding in nerve cells, soemtimes producing symptons of disease, often not. They have been implicated in causing cancer. Nothing can eradicate them from the body once they gain entry. Scary, yes, though generally not lethal.
The term "herpes", from a Greek word meaning "to creep", has been used for thousands of years. In popular speech it refers ro just two of these thugs, Herpes simplex virus 1 and 2, abbrevuated HSV-1 and HSV-2. The first usually causes cold sores or fever blister, first described by a Roman doctor, Herodotus, around A.D. 100 as "herpetic eruptions which appear about the mouth at the crisis of simple fevers". Recurrent episodes can be brought on by emotional stress, ultraviolet energy in sunlight, physical exertion, other infections, and immune system disorders. Shakespeare wrote of this unsightly curse in Romeo and Juliet: "O'er ladies' lips, who straight on kisses dream/Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,/Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are". The second type causes similar spots in the genital area and was not publicly reported until 1,600 years later, by a Frenchman named Astruc. HSV-1 and HSV-2 are very closely related creatures, about half of their genetic codes being identical. Either type can infect the same body sites under certain circumstances. The fact that one is a social nonissue and the other a scandal is a perfect example of how our reaction to disease reflects cultural values.
Thus, studies have been concoted that found 70 to 95 percent HSV-2 infection among prostitutes and, lo and behold, zero among nuns. Surveys also indicate that two thirds of people with either HSV-1 or HSV-2 show no apparent symptons. A form of skin herpes named Herpes bladiatorum is found among college wrestles and rugby players, who pick it up from mat burns and other repeated abrasions.
A drug called acyclovir is currently the best defense against HSV outbreaks. It is not a cure, but it reduces the number and duration of attacks in people who experience them. Debate about whether to make acyclovir available without a prescription has focused on the likelihoof that resistant strains of HSV would spread more rapidly than otherwise. This technical fear may be overwhelmed by sheer deman: some 55 million Americans carry SV-2, 11 million suffer periodic outbreack, and the numbers are rising by hundreds of thousands every year.