If Christopher Scipio has one wish for the year ahead, it’s to strip away the stigma that accompanies herpes. Then again, just as important to the herbalist and homeopath is raising awareness about natural remedies to treat the disease. He knows his stuff on both counts: Scipio has had herpes himself for 13 years.

“People are very shy talking about it,” he says on the line from his Sunshine Coast home. “They suffer feelings of shame, guilt, of feeling dirty….For some people, having herpes can feel like having leprosy.”

There are several varieties of the virus, like herpes zoster (chicken pox and shingles) and human-papillomavirus, one of the most common sexually transmitted viral infections. Then there is herpes simplex, which can cause sores around the mouth or in the genital area. The last type affects nearly one-quarter of American adults, according to this month’s issue of the University of California, Berkeley’s, Wellness Letter, and about 500,000 new cases occur each year. And it’s genital herpes that causes the most anguish.

“The psychological or emotional impact is worse than the physical effects,” Scipio says. “For people who are in relationships with someone who’s not infected, the stress of potentially infecting a partner is a prime trigger for outbreaks.

“One of my clients is a 17-year-old girl who got herpes from her first boyfriend. She’s completely traumatized. That’s the last thing you want to deal with when you’re just starting your sex life….I’m sad to report that a large number of people are now celibate or cut back on their social lives because of having herpes.”

According to Health Canada, genital herpes is most commonly spread during sex by direct contact with open sores. That includes oral sex, from cold sores on the mouth. Once you have herpes, you are infected for life. Symptoms include tingling or itching around the genitals within a week of having sex with an infected partner. That’s followed by the appearance of a cluster of tiny blisters that burst and leave painful wounds for as long as three weeks. The first outbreak often comes with or is preceded by flulike symptoms such as chills and fever. Once the sores heal, the virus retreats to nerve cells and stays dormant until the next attack.

According to the Wellness Letter, it’s not clear why the virus reemerges: “Many people believe that emotional stress brings on attacks of both genital and oral herpes, and there’s some evidence to support this.”

Scipio subscribes to the theory that stress can trigger outbreaks, a phenomenon he sees as one of virus’s positive aspects.

“It’s a very good barometer; it’s a warning sign when you’re out of balance,” he says. “If you’re not in balance, you’ll have problems. So having herpes forces you to eat healthily, to deal with stress in a constructive way, and to examine your lifestyle. It forces you to stay away from caffeine, cigarettes, too much sugar and processed foods; things you should be staying away from anyway.”

He also says he believes the virus can have a beneficial effect on your personal life. “It’s a litmus test for who really cares about you,” Scipio says. “If you’re in a relationship and you tell them you have herpes, if all of a sudden they aren’t interested anymore–or if they are still interested–it’s affirmation of their desire for you.”

Having the virus also forces carriers to be honest and to practise safe sex, he notes, adding that with a few precautions, herpes doesn’t mean people can’t have good sex lives. Using a condom is vital, even when there are no visible sores, but the areas of the skin, including the anal area, that aren’t covered by a condom aren’t protected, Health Canada states.

There’s no cure, but treatment can shorten attacks and reduce the pain of the sores.

Conventional treatment involves taking prescription antiviral drugs like Zovirax (acyclovir), Valtrex (valacyclovir), and Famvir (famciclovir). They help promote healing and suppress future outbreaks. According to a new study published in the January 1, 2004, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, taking valacyclovir every day can cut the transmission of genital herpes by as much as 48 percent. GlaxoSmithKline, which manufactures the drug, sponsored the study.

Taking daily medication for a year or more is an approach known as suppressive therapy. The Wellness Letter states that suppressive therapy keeps herpes from recurring in 60 to 90 percent of people. “These drugs have been extensively studied and appear to be very safe, with few side effects, even if taken for years,” it says.

Scipio disagrees, arguing that prescription drugs can have side effects worse than the illness they’re supposed to fight. When he starting taking pharmaceuticals years ago, he found himself experiencing migraine headaches for the first time in his life. Scipio says antivirals do have a place in herpes treatment, particularly among those who have just been diagnosed and need some time to adjust to the shock, but he notes the drugs are costly, as much as $200 a month.

He has developed a protocol consisting of herbs and homeopathic agents that he claims is effective and inexpensive. Each client’s regimen is different, but he generally suggests combining internal and topical remedies. The most common herbs he uses include lemon balm, olive leaf, and desert parsley. He sometimes incorporates Bach Flower Essences, which he says can help people deal with emotional strain. While Scipio is convinced, many conventional health professionals would likely argue that the efficacy of herbal substances to treat herpes isn’t proven, and that just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Scipio offers regular clinics around the Lower Mainland, including in Vancouver (on the 14th of every month). He also offers an on-line clinic which he says appeals to many because it’s private. (For details, go to his Web site at www.natropractica.com/.)

Although Scipio understands people’s desire for secrecy, he hopes that will change.

“I counsel people to make peace with the disease,” he says. “I encourage people not to be ashamed and to have the courage to speak out, to not feel like a leper.”