The date left Naomi with a terrifying diagnosis.  He wants others to know that they are not alone

The date left Naomi with a terrifying diagnosis. He wants others to know that they are not alone

When Queensland waitress Naomi Santarossa hit it off with a man she met on a dating app, she never imagined the night would change the trajectory of her life forever.

The meeting did not send her on the path of true love. Instead, it led to a visit to the doctor, which ended with a disheartening diagnosis – genital herpes.

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Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV1 or HSV2) – the same type of virus that causes cold sores.

HSV1 is generally transmitted by oral contact and causes oral herpes including cold sores – but both HSV1 and HSV2 can lead to genital herpes.

But despite 75 per cent of Australians living with HSV1 and about 12 in 100 with HSV2, those living with genital herpes say it carries a damaging stigma.

“When I was diagnosed, I started crying and I was like, ‘This is forever, I’m not going to be able to do anything,'” Santarossa told 7NEWS.com.au.

“It’s too stigmatized.”

But instead of letting the stigma get to her, the 23-year-old took to TikTok to speak out.

Queensland waitress Naomi Santarossa, 23, is speaking out about living with herpes in the hope of breaking the stigma. Credit: Supplied for 7NEWS.com.au

‘Your Life Is Over’

A restless Santarossa sat in a doctor’s office six months ago, hoping and praying for the “all clear.”

“When I first started showing symptoms, I knew in the back of my head it was herpes,” she said, but she didn’t want to believe it.

“I was googling and looking at pictures like, ‘No, it’s not.’ I convinced myself I had genital warts.”

The thought of being diagnosed with herpes was terrifying. The stigma of shame that comes with it was even stronger.

“Growing up, you had sex in school, but they don’t explain herpes properly,” Santarossa said.

“They walk around saying ‘don’t get it, your life will be over’.”

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Fear hung over her head when the doctor looked at Santarossa’s symptoms and said, “Oh my love, you have genital herpes.”

“It takes a lot of confidence out of you and you have to rebuild it,” Santarossa said.

“In the beginning I was very up and down.

“I’m lucky to have a very supportive home life with my mum, sister and friends – they stayed up sobbing with me for hours.”

But some of the newfound weight on Santaross’ shoulders began to lift when she learned how common the infection was.

In the US, genital herpes caused by HSV1 or HSV2 affects one in six people between the ages of 14 and 49.

Closer to home, up to 1 in 8 sexually active Australian adults have genital herpes.

“I just dove into the research and looked at the statistics and realized how common it is and how few people are educated enough about it,” she said.

Santarossa was terrified when she was first diagnosed. Now he wants to help others. Credit: Supplied for 7NEWS.com.au

Embarrassing moment

HSV is transmitted through close skin-to-skin contact and can cause genital blisters or sores to break out.

After the first episode, the virus remains dormant, which means that outbreaks of sores and blisters can recur.

Outbreaks are treated with antiviral medicine, and many people with herpes find that flare-ups become milder and less frequent over the years.

However, it is possible for herpes to be transmitted from an asymptomatic person who may not even know they have it, so detection and protection is paramount during sex.

Queensland waitress Naomi Santarossa, 23, is speaking out about living with herpes in the hope of breaking the stigma. Credit: Supplied for 7NEWS.com.au

Telling a potential partner she has herpes was daunting at first, Santarossa said, but she soon realized it wasn’t as big a deal as society made it out to be.

“I had one very unpleasant encounter with a guy, he came over and couldn’t get out of my house fast enough,” she said.

“It just comes with it. People are undereducated.”

Fortunately, Santarossa’s partners are usually fine with her diagnosis, but she’s learned to have a thick skin.

“If I don’t know them personally and it’s not someone I’ve met before, I just tell them before I meet them because I don’t want to waste time if they’re uncomfortable or waste my time,” she said.

Even though she’s had to change the way she approaches dating, Santarossa wants others with herpes to know they can still live fulfilling lives.

A diagnosis does not mean that they cannot be loved, have relationships and experience intimacy.

“The first (outbreak) I had was horrible, but after that it’s really nothing,” Santarossa said.

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Breaking barriers

In social circles, herpes is a taboo subject that is considered shameful, humiliating and isolating. But it doesn’t have to be.

Breaking the stigma is Santarossa’s latest mission as she takes what she’s learned to TikTok in hopes of helping people know they’re not alone.

“I realized how common it is and thought I’d start spreading the word,” she said, adding that change needs to start at a younger age.

“We have to express it. I’m not disgusting.”

Santarossa, also known as @NaommiiGraccee, has over 10,000 followers and counting, sharing facts and stories about living with herpes with her supporters.

“The response has been amazing,” she said.

“I opened up my DMs so everyone could message me and I’m not even halfway through my message requests since then. These are all people who ask or request advice and information about herpes.

“Even people who have herpes are often still very uneducated.”

Naomi Santarossa started sharing her genital herpes journey on TikTok to help others learn more about STIs and break the stigma. Credit: TikTok / @naommiigraccee

Santarissa says she was pleasantly surprised by the engagement on her account, adding that she thinks she must have found her way to the right side of the internet.

“I almost always get positive comments, everyone is so nice or curious,” she said.

“It’s actually pretty cool because the bad comments I get keep me going.

But it took time for her to build the level of confidence that allowed her to share her diagnosis with the world — and not everyone can do that.

Santarossa wants people to be more considerate when it comes to discussing sexually transmitted diseases and infections, and to be aware of how their hurtful words could unknowingly hurt loved ones.

“I want people to realize that you can have herpes and not even know it, I’m just one of the people who shows symptoms,” she said.

“People can live their whole lives and die without knowing they have it.

She wants sex education to move away from “scare tactics” and move towards open conversations.

“We did sex about STDs and all they did with herpes was show us pictures and say, ‘This is bad, it’s going to ruin your life.’

“They need to go out more and say, ‘If you catch it, it’s OK’ and show kids how normal it is and how you can get on with life.

“It’s not the end of the world and you’re not alone.

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