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A date left Naomi with a daunting diagnosis. She wants others to know they’re not alone

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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 encounter didn’t send her down the path of true love. Instead, it led to a doctor’s appointment that ended with a daunting diagnosis – genital herpes.

WATCH THE VIDEO ABOVE: Aussie woman’s tips on how to live with 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-to-oral contact, causing 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 just started crying and was like, ‘this is a forever thing, I’m not going to be able to do anything’,” Santarossa told 7NEWS.com.au.

“It’s way over stigmatised.”

Instead of letting the stigma get to her, the 23-year-old turned to TikTok to speak out.

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

‘Your life is over’

Sitting in the doctor’s office six months ago, an uneasy Santarossa was hoping and praying for the “all clear”.

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

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

The idea of a herpes diagnosis was terrifying. The stigma of shame that comes with it was even more so.

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

“They brush past it and say ‘don’t get it, your life is going to be over’.”

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Fear hung over her head as the doctor took one look at Santarossa’s symptoms and said, “Oh love, you’ve got genital herpes”.

“It does take a lot of your self-confidence away and you have to rebuild that,” Santarossa said.

“I was very up and down at the beginning.

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

But part of the newfound weight on Santarossa’s shoulders began to lift when she learned just how common the infection was.

In the US, genital herpes, caused by HSV1 or HSV2, affects one out of every six people age 14 to 49.

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

“I just delved straight into research and looking at the statistics and came to realise how common it is and how under-educated on it most people are,” Santarossa said.

Santarossa was terrified when she was first diganosed. Now, she wants to help others. Credit: Supplied to 7NEWS.com.au

The awkward moment

HSV is passed on through close skin-to-skin contact and can cause outbreaks of blisters or sores on the genitals.

After the first episode, the virus remains dormant, which means recurrent flare-ups of sores and blisters can happen oven time.

Outbreaks are managed with anti-viral medicine, and many people with herpes find the flare-ups become milder and less frequent over the years.

However, it is possible for herpes to spread from an asymptomatic person who may not even know they have it, making disclosure and protection paramount when having sex.

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

Telling a prospective partner she had herpes was daunting at first, Santarossa said, but she soon realised it is not as big of a deal as society makes it seem.

“I did have one very awkward disclosure with a guy, he came over and he couldn’t leave my house fast enough,” she said.

“It just comes with it. People are under-educated.”

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

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

While she has had to shift the way she approaches dating, Santarossa wants others with herpes to know they can still live a fulfilled life.

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

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

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Breaking barriers

In social circles, herpes is a taboo topic seen as shameful, humiliating and isolating. But it does not have to be.

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

“I realised how common it is and thought I’m going to start spreading this information,” she said, adding that change needs to start at a younger age.

“We need to voice it. I’m not disgusting.”

With over 10,000 followers and counting, Santarossa, also known as @NaommiiGraccee, shares facts and stories about life with herpes to her supportive followers.

“The response has been amazing,” she said.

“I’ve opened my DMs so everyone can message me and since doing that I’m not even halfway through my message requests. It’s all people asking questions or for 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 the STI and break the stigma. Credit: TikTok / @naommiigraccee

Santarissa says she has been pleasantly surprised by the engagement on her account, adding she thinks she must have found her way onto the right side of the internet.

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

“It’s actually kind of great because the mean comments I do get, my followers back me up.”

But it has taken her time to build the level of confidence that allowed her to disclose 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 be aware of how their harmful words could unknowingly hurt people close to them.

“I want people to realise you could have herpes and not even know it, I’m just one of the people who show symptoms,” she said.

“People can live their entire life and die not knowing they had it.

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

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

“They need to go into it more and say, “If you catch this it’s ok’ and show the kids how common it is and how you can continue to live.

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

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Source: 7News