Three desolating facts about genital herpes made it front-page news: It's incurable; an estimated 20 million Americans have it; and it seems to thrive among a group unused to problems that can't be dieted, jogged or pill-popped away—the young, white middle class. "No matter how much money you have, you can't buy your way out," says Samuel Knox, 35, founder of the Palo Alto-based Herpes Resource Center, which has 55 self-help centers nationwide. "Fear of herpes is for this generation what fear of pregnancy was for my parents' generation."
It is also, Knox contends (though he does not have the disease), a fear that has gotten out of hand. "Both sexes experience a sense of 'Who's going to want me?' Many people's self-esteem is shattered. But this can be talked through. That's really a point-in-time feeling and based on ignorance." Many patients are surprised to discover that herpes is not always infectious (only during certain stages, usually beginning with a tingling sensation 24 to 48 hours before sores appear and continuing until they heal completely); that the frequency and intensity of the virus-borne disease usually decreases with time; and that some people have found attacks can be reduced by controlling stress. "People in their 20s and 30s have had to face their own mortality at an early age," says Knox. "Now they recognize the importance of nutrition and sleep and relaxation." He's hopeful for the future. "I think there will be a solution to the problem," says Knox, adding that a side effect of herpes hysteria has been a surge in scientific research. Meanwhile, perspective is the best medicine. "People hate it when I say this," says Knox, "but, in general, herpes is a relatively minor infection, and of even less consequence if the facts are understood."