If there was a spike in herpes cases following Coachella, Jose Arballo with the Riverside Department of Public Health says his agency has not seen any evidence, despite recent reports that an app designed to diagnose and treat the sexually transmitted infection saw a near tenfold uptick in cases in Southern California during the festival.
"I reached out to our lab departments, disease control and our HIV and STD program and none of them reported a spike in herpes cases," says Arballo, public information officer for the county-run health department where Coachella takes place every year.
Arballo has been fielding dozens of calls since yesterday, when TMZ reported a "huge spike in folks looking to get treated for herpes" from HerpAlert, a two-year-old smartphone app and web portal for diagnosing and treating genital herpes and cold sores. After paying $79, users answer a few questions and take a picture of the area on their body where they are believed to be experiencing an outbreak. After a few hours, most receive medical advice regarding their condition and a prescription for treatment at a nearby pharmacy.
Initial reporting indicated that the app had seen a spike in inquiries made on the app, jumping from about 12 people per day to 250 in the first two days of the festival. But physicians interviewed by Billboard, including HerpAlert's own medical director, say it's more likely that app users were inquiring about herpes prior to the festival, which takes place in the desert under unusually hot and dry conditions, and not reporting a mass outbreak of STDs during the festival.
"My first reaction is that the whole thing is kind of silly because symptoms don't typically show up in 24 hours," said Dr. Jill Grimes, a board-certified family physician and author of Seductive Delusions: How Everyday People Catch STDs. "It can take anywhere from two to 12 days for symptoms to appear, although the average is three to four days," says Grimes, who is on faculty at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and is spokesperson for the American Academy of Family Physicians.
"Typically it's a situation where a person hooks up on the weekend and starts having symptoms on a Tuesday," Grimes explains, adding that it's not uncommon for large events to see an increase in cases, but noted that a 20-times spike seemed suspiciously high.
HerpAlert medical director Lynn Marie Morski has since clarified the company's findings, telling Billboard that the 1,105 electronic consult requests made on the app were not necessarily new cases, but people using the platform for a variety of reasons.
"There were many coming to get medication to treat and prevent flares. We see it as people deciding to take proactive care of their health and the health of those they may interact with over the weekend," Morski tells Billboard. "We do not have a number of diagnosed new cases, as sometimes we cannot determine their history and photos, so we have to advise they see a provider in person."
An official with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health told Billboard that it too had not seen a noticeable uptick in herpes cases, although generally, both oral and genital herpes aren't monitored by health agencies like other infectious diseases including measles, whooping cough and HIV and AIDS.
"Herpes is not a reportable disease, as it is very common and has extremely rare complications; so trends in herpes cases are not easily tracked," the official said.
That lack of tracking can make claims of herpes outbreaks difficult to prove or disprove, and Grimes says it's possible that HerpAlert's spike in people using the app could be a result of increased advertising or marketing by the app, a possibility also raised by officials with the app.
"It's well established that California has seen a rise in sexually transmitted infections so that awareness and discussions (podcast, YouTube, social media, etc) likely played a role along with advertising. So tough to say exactly," an email from HerpAlert's press team reads.
Grimes also said people tend to get tested more often before and after large gatherings like concerts and sporting events where people are partying and hooking up.
"I live in Austin (Texas) and we do a see an uptick in the days following South by Southwest and Austin City Limits festival that's not unique to herpes, but all sexually transmitted diseases," says Grimes, adding that many people who have oral herpes aren't aware that they can infect someone with genital herpes through oral sex. She recommends people use condoms when engaging in any sexual behavior with another person.
"It's not 100-percent protection — against herpes — but it's far better that having no protection," she says.