Story Highlights• Rise in STD's sparks online dating, support communities
• Groups provide understanding, acceptance members say
• One site lists events for people with herpes in 40 cities
By Elizabeth Cohen
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(CNN) -- When John got divorced after 12 years of marriage, he took a deep breath and launched into the dating scene.
"And wham, with my very first girlfriend, I caught herpes," he says. "You feel betrayed and all of a sudden separated from the rest of the world. I thought at the time that the girl who gave it to me and I were the only people in the world who had it."
But John and his date are far from alone. And the growing number of people in similar situations has created a new industry: Internet dating sites just for people with STDs. From MPWH.com to stdmatch.net, Web sites abound for the infected who want to date the infected.
It's not surprising once you see the numbers. One in four women is infected with genital herpes, and nearly one in five men according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And a study in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association finds that one in four women has human papillomavirus, which can cause genital warts and cervical cancer.(Interactive: Test your STD knowledge)
Once John got over the initial shock of his diagnosis, one of the first things he did was go online. (Watch how daunting dating can be for those with STDs )
"I went on Craig's List and posted a note that said, 'I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I'm a decent professional man, and I've ended up with this.' Someone then contacted me and said, 'Have you heard of Charlotteh?'"
Once John joined Charlotteh.com - part support group, part dating site for people with herpes - everything changed. "I would have been happy to have had just one person to unload everything I was feeling," he says. "Instead I found more than 500."
"Charlotteh" was started two years ago by Pam - who, like John, doesn't want her last name used. She discovered she had herpes, and dating had become difficult.
"I'm 27, working on a Ph.D., own a second home, I have a master's degree, but when I go into a relationship, I bring this with me, and that's hard," she says.
Even knowing when to tell a prospective boyfriend about herpes is tough. "It's confusing, because you don't know when the right time is to tell somebody. Should you be up front and get it over with or wait until the person develops feelings for you? It's a big ethical problem."
For Jennifer Nicholas, it was more than just an ethical problem. Once she told men she was dating about herpes, many ran in the opposite direction.
"One guy, I thought he was Mr. Perfect. But then when I told him that I had herpes, he said, 'Forget my phone number, forget my address,' and he blocked me from being able to message him on the computer," she says.
Jennifer joined atlantahclub.com, another site for people with herpes. These sites immediately take several questions off the table. Members don't have to worry about when to tell other members they have herpes, since everyone in the group does. And they don't have to worry about spreading herpes, since the other members already have it.
Pam says at first, people are very nervous about joining, because it may be the first time they identify themselves as having herpes.
"People show up for their first support group meeting and sometimes they turn right around at the door because they don't have the courage to come in," said Pam. But then later, "I have people sending me thank you e-mails all the time. A guy came to a support group meeting and sent me flowers."
Since many of the members have not come out to family and friends, a password is needed to get into the photo gallery showing pictures of social events and to receive any specific information about members.
A big part of STD Internet groups is social outings. One site, H2Ofriends.com, lists events for people with herpes in some 40 cities, from San Francisco, California, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Some events attract hundreds of people. They look just like any other large party. "When we go on outings, we don't put a sign up in the hallway saying, 'Meeting of the Charlotte herpes club,'" Pam said, "Once we went to dinner and there were 30 of us and the hostess asked, 'What's the special occasion?' My friend said, 'We're the Charlotte pottery club!'"
CNN Medical News senior producer Jennifer Pifer contributed to this report.
Online support and dating groups for people with STD's take several tough questions off the table, members say.
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