Herpes Stigma: the Origin
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that Herpes Simplex Virus was differentiated into Type 1 and Type 2, for medical/scientific taxonomy purposes. Until then, it was all just referred to as Herpes Simplex Virus. Unfortunately this would later develop into the myth of “good herpes” and “bad herpes”.
[Note: Oral & Genital Herpes have no specific type; either location can host either Type 1 or Type 2… either of which can also infect any other surface of the body.]
Herpes Genitalis, it seems, was not always stigmatized; it was merely a cold sore in an unusual place until the 1970s. The stigma is a comparatively recent phenomenon and appears to be the direct result of a Burroughs Wellcome’s Zovirax pharmaceutical marketing campaign in the late 1970’s through mid 1980’s. Prior to the advent of antiviral drugs, cold sores and genital herpes (both caused by either of the herpes simplex viruses) were only treated symptomatically – symptoms could be alleviated but not prevented (and obviously, the viruses themselves could not be eradicated from the body; they still cannot). The ability to prevent – or at least reduce the frequency and severity of genital herpes was to become the key selling point, along with potentially reducing transmission.
Neither condition, at the time, was considered to be a significant medical problem. In 1975, a study of “Psychological morbidity in a clinic for sexually transmitted disease” (Richard Mayou, The London Hospital) made no mention of herpes whatsoever. A standard medical textbook such as Obstetric and Gynecological Nursing (Rosemary E Bailey, 1978 edition), did not even bother mentioning herpes at all.
Three decades later, in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Pedro Cuatrecasas, who had been in charge of R&D at Burroughs Wellcome Co. from 1975 to 1985 stated,
“During the R&D of acyclovir (Zovirax), the marketing [department of Burroughs Wellcome] insisted that there were ‘no markets’ for this compound. Most had hardly heard of genital herpes…”.
Any public perception of need for antivirals, it seemed, would have to be manufactured as well.
In the USA, prescription drugs can be advertised directly to the public. The Burroughs Wellcome advertising campaign was designed to stimulate demand for Zovirax by raising patients’ concerns about the social consequences and implications of infection and emphasizing that the drug could reduce outbreaks and transmission. The campaign appears to have successfully created the stigma which has clung to genital herpes ever since.
It is conjectured by much of the HSV community that the reason for lack of the same level of stigma in many non-English speaking countries is that, in many languages, the word ‘herpes’ is used for ‘cold sores’. That while Herpes Simplex was recategorized taxonomically in the 1960’s, it had not been divided socially and “relabeled”, with the associated stigma. Therefore, when a genital infection is labeled ‘herpes’ in foreign countries, the link to cold sores is made – a condition with which people are comfortable. This makes it less likely that the patient will be alarmed by the diagnosis. Another key indicator is that the stigma is much stronger in the societies where the Burroughs Wellcome marketing/advertising campaigns actually occurred in the 1970’s & 1980’s.
Either way, in most of the world, getting herpes is about as significant as getting the flu. We’re human. We get sick now and then.
While it may not sound like it, we make no judgments about the “goodness” or “badness” of the actions above. It’s marketing. Convincing people that they want/need things is every marketer’s job and every company does it. Herpes has always been an inconvenient (and for some, uncomfortable) fact of human life. Burroughs Wellcome simply discovered a means of additional symptomatic relief and, like any other manufacturer, sought to ensure there were plenty of people to buy it. That’s the whole purpose of marketing and a critical practice of every manufacturer of any product. And, since its release, Burroughs Wellcome’s Zovirax(acyclovir) has certainly provided many millions with additional relief from various complications caused by viruses.
- ^ British Journal of Venereal Disease 1975 [“http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1045113/pdf]
- ^ Journal of Clinical Investigation [“http://www.jci.org/articles/view/29999]
- ^ R Moynihan – see Selling Sickness: The Pharmaceutical Industry and Disease Mongering. BMJ 2002
- ^ Time magazine August 1982 cover [“http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19820802,00.html]
- ^ Time magazine August 1982 “New Scarlet Letter” [“http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1715020,00.html]
- ^ Time magazine August 1982 “Behaviour: Battling an Elusive Invader” [“http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,925609,00.html]