The Ecphorizer

The Story of an Infection
Ambrose Fish

Issue #21 (May 1983)

Magazines catch the Love Bug

I began my research on this article by consulting my urologist. "Tell me," I asked him, "is it true, what all the news magazines are saying about herpes?" "No," he said. "For instance, they say that there are twenty million people in the U. S. who have

As herpes gained ground as VD, it lost importance as a carcinogen.

it. That's completely wrong." "Well, how many are there, then?" "As of this moment," he said, washing his hands, "twenty million and one."

The minute he said that, I knew that herpes had reached unacceptable proportions as a public-health problem. Something had to he done about it. But what could I do? I'm not a scientist or an M.D. I'm used to researching problems, not solving them. But it occurred to me that for all the scientific research that has been done on herpes, nobody has ever attacked it from the [quoteright]bibliographic angle. And so the H*A*S*H Project was born. (The acronym stands for "Herpes. As Subject Heading.") H*A*S*H was funded entirely out of my own pocket, and all project-related work was carried out at the public library on a rainy Monday afternoon in December when I didn't have anything better to do.

Before 1959, there was no such thing as herpes, or at least, herpes as we know it. Nobody had ever heard of it, except for the librarians who file books on Hovercraft under "Ground-effect machines" and put World War II under "European War, 1939-1945." Until then, it lived as most viruses do, disguised as something else and hiding under another subject heading in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. Prior to the biennial cumulation of RG for 1959-61, it was to be found only as "Herpes Zoster. See Shingles." Its debut as the now-familiar Herpes simplex occurred in that issue. But even in that two-year cumulation, there was only one citation, and that one was for an article in Science - it was still confined to the laboratory. It had yet to spread to popular publications.

That happened in the cumulation for 1961-63. Out of three citations listed in that issue, two were in Time. Scientific interest was holding steady at an average 0.5 citations per year. The last two-year cumulation of RG, 1963-65, raised the ante to five citations, of which three were scientific. For the first six years of its existence as a subject heading, then, H. simplex appeared an average of 1.5 times per year in the periodicals indexed by RG, of which 0.67 citations per year were in popular periodicals. Ominously, one of the 1963-65 citations raised the possibility of a link between herpes and cancer.

As frequently happens with loathsome diseases, an initial flurry of symptoms was followed by a quiescent period. It was either for that reason or possibly because herpes was eclipsed by events taking place in Southeast Asia that the (now annual) issues of RG for 1965-66, 1966-67, and 1967-68 list 1, 3, and 1 citations, respectively, all of them in scientific publications.

Then the virus mutated. It turned into no fewer than three subject headings, "Herpes simplex," "Herpesvirus" (one word), and "Herpesvirus infections." In the 1968-69 issue, there was one entry under each of those headings. Of the three, two were scientific. The disease had begun a re-penetration of the popular tissue.

In 1969-70, there were six citations, and five were scientific. But a new an ominous element had emerged, in a prestigious publication. Time titled its contribution "Is intercourse a factor?" It was the beginning of a whole new role for the herpes virus - that of venereal disease.

1970-71 was a halcyon year: three citations, all scientific. But then a major outbreak occurred in 1971-72. In that year, there were twelve citations, seven scientific. The other five spread out from the news magazines to infect new subject areas: Vogue and Fortune succumbed, along with Newsweek. (Where Time and Fortune had caught the bug, could Sports Illustrated be far behind?) 1972-73 saw more of the same, at six citations, four of them scientific. But Business Week had been infected. The total suddenly ballooned to sixteen citations in 1973-74, of which, fortunately, thirteen were scientific and thus confined to the lab.

In 1974-75, the count dropped back to five. But where the disease was causing fewer articles, it continued its spread into previously-uninfected publications, such as Mademoiselle and the Reader's Digest. The Digest said outright what Time had only dared hint at five years before: "Grim new venereal disease in our midst." As herpes gained ground as VD, it lost importance as a carcinogen (Science: "Cancer claim retracted"; Time: "Premature indictment?").

1975-76 saw a reduction in activity while the scientific community absorbed the reports from the laboratory. But in 1976-77, while the scientific journals continued to hedge their bets, herpes continued its seemingly ineluctable advance into popular territory (New Times Magazine: "Viruses of love"; Parents Magazine: "What today's teenagers don't know about sex: genital herpes virus"). In 1977-78, Ms. succumbed to herpes, for one citation out of ten in that year. The eight citations for 1978-79 include Better Homes & Gardens and Family Health ("Herpes: the love bug").

1979-80 saw a return to double digits. One of the twelve citations from that year was from Business Week, which suffered a relapse after a seven-year remission period ("Herpes II: a spreading form of VD to beware"). Perhaps the worst year of all was 1980-81. There were fourteen citations in that year. The 1974 report in Science that the link between H. simplex and cancer had been too hastily forged was refuted by Mademoiselle ("Too much sex too soon and cervical cancer"). Time not only forgot that the Digest had already made herpes into a venereal disease in 1974 ("Herpes: new VD in town"), they saw the Digest's VD and raised them ("The new sexual leprosy"). All attempts to control this virulent plague were obviously useless; not only was herpes linked to cancer, venereal disease, and leprosy, it had also infected the pages of Maclean's, McCall's and Harper's Bazaar.

Genocidal implications surfaced in 1981-82. Ebony's report in that year was titled, "Herpes simplex II: incurable venereal disease epidemic threatens blacks of all classes." And the disease continued its inexorable inroads into the List of Periodicals Indexed in the end-papers of RG. In that year, it claimed FDA Consumer, USA Today, and Mother Earth News. There were twelve citations in all.

To deal with this important problem we must have a clear overview of the rate at which it is advancing. To further comprehension, I have calculated the average rate of incidence for five-year periods. Herpes appeared in periodicals indexed by an average of 0.5 times per year in 1958-62; 2.1 times in 1963-67; 5.0 times in 1968-1972; 7.4 times in 1973-74; and 11.2 times in 1978-82. At that rate of increase, it is quite clear that we will soon not be able to read about anything else.

There is considerable disagreement about the news magazines' claim that at the rate the disease is spreading, everybody will have it by the turn of the century. But given the evidence which I have adduced above, it is irrefutable that everybody will be utterly bored with it by then. As yet, nobody has advanced the claim that herpes is fatal. But we know that boredom can be (George Sanders said in his suicide note that he was literally bored to death). So why take a chance? Let's stop publication on this noisome subject while there is still hope. 

The author of the article attributed to Ambrose Fish is a popular San Francisco Mensa bon vivant who wishes (for obvious reasons) to maintain anonymity.  The local Mensa ladies will doubtless find it an exciting game trying to figure out who he is.

More Articles by Ambrose Fish

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