Genital herpes is a common ailment, a fact that wouldn't surprise most people. But in a story on the STD at Slate, LV Anderson lays out another fact that might: "It is, for the vast majority of people, no big deal." And yet, herpes simplex virus 2, or HSV-2—the type of herpes usually associated with genital outbreaks—has the reputation of being much, much worse than it actually is. Why? Anderson traces the problem back to the late 1970s and early '80s, when a combination of media hysteria and consumers' fears began feeding off one another. In 1982, "herpes hysteria reached its pinnacle," with major magazines such as Time, the New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone coming out with worrisome cover stories. The STD is indeed common: About 12% of Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 have HSV-2, and most (more than 80%) don't know it.
The thing is, the CDC is fine with that latter stat and recommends against widespread screening because, in the agency's words, "the risk of shaming and stigmatizing people outweighs the potential benefits." For those who have HSV-2 and active symptoms, those symptoms are "generally no worse than, well, cold sores, only they’re not on your face," writes Anderson. Those with compromised immune systems might have more serious complications, but they're usually treatable. "In short, herpes simplex is a common, generally harmless skin condition that happens to sometimes be spread sexually." Read the full story, in which Anderson explains the difference between HSV-1 (think cold sores around the mouth) and HSV-2, and seeks to debunk a widespread conspiracy theory that Big Pharma ginned up herpes hysteria to sell drugs. (Read more Longform stories.)