A woman who was diagnosed with genital herpes days before her 21st birthday has spoken about her journey from being terrified and ashamed to telling the world she has the STI in a crusade to banish stigma.
Ella Dawson, now 23, stripped down to her underwear in a video by Stylelikeu called The What’s Underneath Project as she told her story, reflecting the process of peeling away defences to tell the truth of her experience.
When the symptoms appeared during her time at university in the US, she said she had never had unprotected sex and thought she “wasn't the sort of person STDs happened to”.
In the video, she told how her “brain went into panic mode” when she was diagnosed, adding: “I felt disgusted and revolted by my own sexuality. I was thrown into a real identity crisis.”
When Ms Dawson told her boyfriend, he reacted badly.
“The person I'd known, that I'd been falling for, in an instant, was gone,” she recalled.
“He said all the worst things I had been thinking about myself. I remember him calling me a whore...and saying 'this is what I get for falling for a girl like you'.”
The relationship continued for several months but Ms Dawson said the “emotional abuse” that started drove her to write about her experience with herpes and start talking about it openly.
Despite one in six people being infected with genital herpes in the US - a similar proportion to the UK - she was the only person she knew with the condition but since starting a blog and opening up about her experience on social media, thousands of other people with the condition have come forward.
“The more I talked about herpes, the more power I felt over it,” Ms Dawson said in the video. “I realised that herpes would only decide my fate if I let it.”
Now she campaigns for increased awareness over the infection and against the stigma surrounding it that drives many sufferers into anxiety and depression, as well as preventing people from summoning the courage to be tested and stop it spreading.
Ms Dawson said the response to her story has been “huge and overwhelmingly positive”.
“So many strangers have reached out to me through social media to share their stories and say thank you,” she told The Independent earlier this year.
“I didn't expect one article to snowball across the world, but it just goes to show that this is an issue that touches so many lives.
“People are ready to break the silence and the stigma.”
Genital herpes can be caused by the herpes simplex virus type one or two, according to the Herpes Viruses Association, and 70 per cent of people in the UK will catch one type in their lives.
Only a fifth of those will get symptoms obvious enough to be diagnosed, which more than 32,000 people were in 2013, while for most people the effects will be mild or non-existent and they are likely to remain unaware they have the infection.
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