Wrestlers File Herpes Lawsuit

Three former college wrestlers are blaming their coaches for a herpes outbreak.

November 20, 2008, 7:13 PM

Nov. 25, 2008— -- Though many may want to, few of the 45 million people in the U.S. infected with herpes actually sue someone after they hear the news. But then again, few people have been diagnosed with herpes the way Andrew Bradley was two years ago at York College of Pennsylvania.

One November morning in 2006, Bradley said he and his teammates gathered in the workout wrestling room for a team-wide blood test for herpes.

"I had a rash by my left eye, and then it was crusty and it was pussy and itching, and with that came flu symptoms," said Bradley, now a graduate of the school in York, Pa.

"I didn't know what it was until I was diagnosed," he said.

Bradley had herpes simplex 1 -- the virus associated with cold sores as well as genital herpes. According to Bradley, he caught it on the wrestling mat with an infected teammate who had taped over his herpes lesions.

"I was really devastated because I know that this was permanent, I knew there was a stigma with the virus," he said.

In a rare move, Bradley and two of his former teammates have filed a civil case against York claiming that the wrestling coach and trainers' actions are responsible for a herpes outbreak.

Thomas Kessler, the head coach of wrestling at York, would not grant ABCNews.com an interview. But Alicia Brumbach, assistant director of communications for the college, released this statement to ABCNews.com on behalf of Kessler, head athletic trainer Nate Cooke and the assistant dean of athletics, Sean Sullivan -- all of whom are being sued: "Yes, the college is aware of the allegations, and we believe them to be without foundation. We have no further comment."

Bradley has been wrestling since the seventh grade, but he claimed he never heard of wrestlers contracting herpes on the mat until his teammate showed signs of it.

But herpes in wrestling is common enough that there's a special name for it: herpes gladiatorum. The NCAA even has rules to prevent the spread of herpes gladiatorum.

In fact, it is because of those rules that Bradley, his former teammates James Harris and Alexander Binder, and their lawyer, David Avedissian of Haddonfield, N.J., believe they have a case.

Herpes Infection Common in Wrestling

"It's common in the sport of wrestling, that's why we have a specific rule about it," said Jim Thornton, athletic training liaison to the NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee and director of sports medicine at Clarion University of Pennsylvania in Clarion, Pa.

According to Thornton, players with herpes aren't banned from practice or competition, but there are strict health checks before they may compete or practice.

For a first-ever infection, Thornton said, "in order to participate the wrestler must be free from systemic symptoms such as fever and malaise."

That rule applies whether or not the wrestler has visible lesions.

The wrestler also cannot develop new "blisters" in the 72 hours before wrestling, and the current blisters can't be moist and weeping.

"When the virus has done its thing is when it dries up into a honey-colored crust," said Thornton.

Finally, the wrestler has to take "appropriate antiviral dosages" for five days before practicing.

Thornton emphasized that wrestlers have to meet all of the rules, not just some, before participating. But according to Thornton, some new coaches confuse the rules.

"Active herpetic lesions cannot be covered to allow participation. I don't care if they're on six days of medication," he said. "You can't just cover them to allow them to participate."

"We hold our wrestlers out when they get herpes; they are out for a minimum of five days, period," said Thornton.

Yet Bradley and his lawyer claim their coaches kept the first infected wrestler out for three days and then covered the herpes sores with tape. The lawsuit also claims that the coaches continued to tape up players and allow them to participate as more and more members of the team came down with herpes.

Herpes Outbreaks Remain Contagious

Three days versus five days may mean something to the NCAA and the lawsuit, but Dr. Bruce Robinson, a clinical instructor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, said herpes infections can remain contagious for several weeks without treatments.

"It can be a bump; it doesn't have to be an open sore, but it does have to be there to be contagious," said Robinson.

Without treatment, Robinson said, "Usually it comes out over two or three days. It will hang out for about a week. After that, it begins to crust over and then it goes away."

Robinson said covering a sore would theoretically stop transmission, but there are caveats.

"The potential problem would be for it to be knocked off during wrestling," said Robinson.

"Also, it's pretty hard to tape over that, depending on where it is, like the lips," he said.

With the latest antiviral treatment, Robinson said an outbreak may go away after one week.

"For a wrestler, I would consider putting them on suppressive therapy," he said. "The problem is that it's transferred by direct contact. Transmission can occur anywhere where you have contact with an outbreak."

Bradley said he's had 10 outbreaks since November 2006, and that his ophthalmologist is worried the herpes may spread directly into his eye.

"I have hundreds of patients in my practice who have herpes actually in the eye," said Dr. James Gorman, Bradley's doctor in Voorhees, N.J., and chief of ophthalmology at Kennedy Hospital in New Jersey.

"It feels like a hot bore being drilled into your skull," he said.

According to Gorman, an infection with herpes can lead to scarring on the cornea or even glaucoma.

Yet, those are the most extreme cases of herpes gladiatorum.

Thornton said most cases he has seen stayed on the skin.

"It does happen. It's the same thing as a cold sore, but it's a little bit nastier or uglier," said Thornton. "It's common, because wrestlers have close physical contacts. It's the nature of the sport."

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