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In wake of Coachella's herpes spike, festivals need to up their sexual health safety game, say experts

Music festivals need to really take a reality check before it becomes all about bandanas, flower crowns, and herpes.
UPDATED APR 30, 2019

From the outside, Coachella, one of the biggest music festivals in the world, is nothing but rainbows, deserts, and fantastic music. But, it has a darker side that nobody seems to be really addressing — its rampant disregard for sexual health safety.

Last week Coachella 2019 shut shop for the year after a glorious two-weekend run. While festival-goers and fans were reeling over Ari-Chella, Justin Bieber's surprise appearance and the latest trends on the 'Gram, HerpAlert saw about 1100 new consultation requests from the Coachella Valley, Los Angeles and San Diego regions from festival goers who had contracted the infection. To put numbers into context, they generally see about 12 patient requests per day from the region.

Ariana Grande performs at Coachella Stage during the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 21, 2019, in Indio, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for AG)

"It's a perfect situation for outbreaks to happen with people who are already infected with the virus as well as a perfect situation for the virus to be transmitted," Alexandra Harbushka from the digital platform told us.

Dr. Lynn Marie Morski who is their medical director agrees. "Coachella combines several factors that can increase the likelihood of both new herpes transmission and flare-ups of existing cases of both oral and genital herpes, such as decreased sleep, increased sun exposure, and a lot of intimate encounters," she said. 

A virus is more prone to outbreaks when the host person is run down, has excess exposure to the sun, and basic stress on the body, Harbushka explained. "Think about it, when you are out at Coachella you're out in the hot sun all day, drinking alcohol, eating foods that are not healthy choices and not getting a good night sleep. This is the perfect recipe to cause a herpes outbreak. Then let's look at how herpes is transmitted, its skin to skin but it can also be transmitted by sharing a drink, lipstick or a cigarette. So it can accidentally or casually be transmitted from a friend just by sharing a beer. And of course, yes it's also sexually transmitted and that includes oral sex, vaginal sex, and anal sex."

Brittany Xavier and Jill Wallace street style at the 2019 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival Weekend 1 on April 13, 2019, in Indio, California. (Getty Images)

However, Coachella isn't the only one that needs a cold hard look when it comes to its sexual health safety, Harbushka says, adding that as a whole it lacks education.

"The conversations about sexual health prior to hooking up or jumping in between the sheets very rarely happens. Get this, 80% of people with HSV2 (that's the genital kind) don't even know they have it! So put a demographic of people who are at a festival and feeling the hookup culture vibes and are not have the "sex talk" and then boom...Herpes!" Harbushka said. 

According to Dr.Morski, there are clear patterns to increases in-line herpes treatment requests and those closely mirror major events. For example, we see big spikes in online requests on December 31 and January 1 corresponding the celebrations of the new year, she remarked. 

While we would be naive to think that physical intimacy and music don't go hand in hand when it comes to festival goers who are young, single and good looking, changes need to be made.

So what is the way forward? 

Harbushka suggests that they take the dorm welcome bag route that comes with plenty of rubber. "The problem is everyone thinks they know what safe sex is and they think they know how to prevent from getting an STD, however, the truth is as a whole we are so undereducated on sexual health. I think the best way is to keep providing resources so that people can know the facts and then make their own decisions," she said.  

"Unfortunately, I see so many people with herpes and they didn't know that it was so easy to contract. Or they didn't know what the virus was at all," she said, "Or they thought that it would never happen to them because they would never put themselves in a situation to get it. The bottom line is education and communication with your partner."

Amy Baldwin, a sex educator, says that the "openness" and "euphoric drugs" is a recipe for carelessness and that education is the key to solving their problem.

"Stop treating it as if it's the plague or a death sentence while giving people the proper education about how to take care of their bodies whether they have herpes or not," she said. She also suggested that festivals can bring in a team of sex educators and healthcare professionals to create an action plan for more sexual health awareness at the festival. She thinks that these festivals don't have to limit themselves to be just about entertainment. 


"Festival organizers are very influential - especially with the younger generations - and this could be an opportunity to both entertain and educate people. Hang flyers, include sexual health info and statistics in the welcome emails, offer on-site presentations/workshops about fun, sexy things that also fill in the gap about sexual health and so on. Create an environment that teaches people how to take care of themselves while continuing to invite their wildness and freedom. It's definitely possible. Burning Man has been doing it for years," she said. 

The experts also agree that the stigma surrounding the virus is also is a huge part of why it is so rampant. "It's the brunt of jokes, it's the dark little secret, its the thing you don't want to get because it stays with you for life and the list can go on and on. If people really knew how common herpes is and that it's just a skin disease then the stigma would start to fade," Baldwin said. 

"What I see a lot is people with HSV 1 or commonly known as oral herpes don't realize that they can sexually transmit herpes to their partner. I'm seeing so many people in my Life With Herpes community who have HSV 1 genitally and never even had sex with the person. For HSV 1 2/3 people have it which translates to 217 million Americans and for HSV 2 the statistics are not as defined but it's anywhere from 1/6 to 1/8  which is about 25 million Americans living with the virus. It's so common and you're guaranteed to have someone you love or a family member with herpes."

Music festivals need to really take a reality check before it becomes all about bandanas, flower crowns, and herpes.