Today Starpharma Holdings Ltd. announced that a new “herpes-killing” gel, VivaGel, might be ready to go on sale by 2012. This is great news, but unfortunately calling it a “herpes-killing gel” is misleading. VivaGel is microbicide designed to stop herpes from spreading from partner to partner. It is NOT a cure for herpes. If you already have herpes, VivaGel will not “kill” it, but rather help protect your sexual partners (the ones with vaginas, anyway) from contracting it. Starpharma Holdings Ltd. is also looking into whether or not the gel will be effective for preventing the spread of HIV.
It seems like this would be a great product for those who already have herpes and their partners. But would it really be effective in reducing the spread of herpes in general? I doubt it. For those more casual encounters, women are not likely to carry around VivaGel in addition to condoms just in case the person they hook up with might have herpes. For one, no one goes into a hook-up thinking their partner might have herpes. Secondly, it would be pretty awkward to try to introduce the gel to your partner without offending them, scaring them, or at the very least, ruining the mood. The reality is that no one will be likely to use the gel unless they are having sex with someone they know to have herpes, with whom they are comfortable enough to talk about the issue. This would most likely apply to people in on-going relationships – those who are (hopefully) already being careful regarding transmission.
The really interesting implication here is that a product like VivaGel might help folks feel more open to dating persons with herpes or other STIs. Having an STI makes dating a challenge, and many folks turn to online dating sites where they can meet others who also have STIs. Social stigma can be blamed for much of the aversion to dating someone with an STI, but part of that aversion is fear due to the real risk of contracting the STI. If VivaGel reduced that risk, it could also reduce social stigma and help us work towards a society in which folks with herpes and other STIs aren’t thought of like lepers, where we are comfortable enough to be honest about our STI status with our partners, and where dating sites aren’t segregated between the “clean” and “infected.”