At public events like conventions, strapping a virtual reality headset onto your face can feel uncomfortably intimate. Face masks can get sweaty and grimy, and lenses can fog up with other people’s breath. But earlier this week, an anonymous chat transcript suggested that headsets were spreading something even less savory: herpes.
“Ocular herpes is going around VR headsets, ones that are used to share with people,” wrote an unnamed developer, according to logs posted by YouTube game streamer Drift0r. “[Redacted game studio] told us its [sic] going around. Have to clean headsets regularly.” When Drift0r asked for more details, the developer named someone who had gotten it, according to the studio. The news confirmed people’s worst fears about sharing headsets, and it lengthened an already-long list of VR health concerns, from the undeniable (motion sickness) to the fanciful (forgetting reality.) But if a VR developer did end up with ocular herpes, they probably didn’t get it from a headset. And the odds that they’ll pass it on that way are just as low.
HERPES SIMPLEX IS NOTHING TO TAKE LIGHTLY, BUT IT’S EXTREMELY COMMON
As its name suggests, ocular herpes refers to a range of eye conditions generally caused by the same herpes simplex virus that’s behind cold sores. It can appear as a rash on the eyelids, or as lesions directly on the eye, causing symptoms like redness, discomfort, blurry vision, and light sensitivity. Mild forms clear up within a couple of weeks and can be easily mistaken for ordinary pink eye, but a less common manifestation — stromal keratitis — can seriously scar the eye and damage vision. As with cold sores, there’s no way to completely eradicate the virus, although antiviral medication can keep symptoms at bay.
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Ocular herpes is nothing to take lightly, and there’s a huge stigma around the virus in general, especially since it can take the form of a sexually transmitted disease. But whether or not you’ve ever touched a VR headset, there’s a good chance you’re already exposed to it. As of 2010, over half of 18- to 49-year-old Americans tested positive for HSV-1, which is behind the bulk of ocular herpes cases. (Far fewer people have HSV-2, which usually results in genital herpes.) Globally, those numbers climb to over two-thirds of the world’s population. And as high as the overall infection rate is, VR headsets aren’t actually a very good vector.
“Herpes is not typically spread through objects,” says Sonal Tuli, chair of the University of Florida’s Department of Ophthalmology. The virus has a difficult time surviving outside the body, so it’s usually spread through direct bodily contact with an infected person, through something like a kiss. And most visible cases of herpes, she says, are actually flareups of dormant infections that have been around for years, often since childhood — caused by a fever or some other external trigger.
“THE ODDS WOULD BE LIKE THE ODDS OF TRANSMITTING HERPES ON TOILET SEATS.”
It’s “highly unlikely, but not absolutely impossible,” that someone could get ocular herpes through a VR headset, says Todd Margolis, chair of the Washington University School of Medicine’s Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. “The odds would be like the odds of transmitting herpes on toilet seats.” It’s more probable, he says, that the developer in Drift0r’s anecdote was already infected and had simply experienced a reactivation. “It is also more likely that he was kissed by somebody at the meeting who had an active cold sore and was shedding infectious virus.”
Sharing virtual reality headsets can certainly carry health risks. In addition to dirt and sweat, headsets could hypothetically play host to lice or harmful bacteria and viruses — including the one behind non-herpes conjunctivitis. “Adenovirus is very infectious and unlike herpes, survives quite well on inanimate surfaces like plastic,” says Margolis. In order to prevent someone with an active case of pink eye from passing it on, exhibitors would need to wipe the headset down, preferably with soap and water — Margolis says that alcohol is less effective for adenovirus, although it’s very good at killing herpes.
Many VR developers keep antimicrobial wipes or covers around show booths, although there’s no standardized hygiene policy. Sony gave developers boxes of PlayStation-branded wet wipes, and Valve has used protective paper covers on its Vive headsets during conventions. The organizers of major meetup group VRLA say they’ve put “strong language” about cleaning headsets in their exhibitor manual, and are unaware of any health scares during their shows, although they told The Verge they’ll be “handing out protection to every exhibitor and attendee” at the 2017 summer expo.
AS VR HEALTH SCARES GO, THIS IS A PRETTY MILD ONE
So far, though, it’s been difficult to isolate the risk of donning a VR headset at a public event from the risks of shaking hands, passing around controllers, trading business cards, or just breathing fetid convention center air. The most famous case of pink eye, recounted on the games site Destructoid, appears to have been merely a burst blood vessel. We reached out to Drift0r for more information about this unlucky, allegedly herpes-plagued developer. But he says they wish to remain as “anonymous as possible,” and so far, we haven’t been able to verify the story.
The slight possibility of getting any form of herpes might be enough to scare some people off of VR, although treating the virus as a fate worse than death arguably just makes the stigma against it even worse. And this rumor is a good reminder to observe basic hygiene rules around something you put on your face. But as VR health scares go, this one sounds a lot worse than it actually is.