Public Health Experts Express Concern About GlaxoSmithKline’s Genital Herpes Awareness Campaign Targeting Blacks
A campaign aiming to raise awareness of genital herpes among blacks has "divided public health authorities and raised complicated questions about race, sex, disease and commerce," the Washington Post reports.
The campaign, called "Say Yes To Knowing" and sponsored by drug maker GlaxoSmithKline, began in Detroit last month and has been expanded to Atlanta and Baltimore -- cities with largely black populations. It encourages individuals to be tested for the disease and notes that nearly one in two blacks has herpes. Information about herpes also has been printed in 100,000 brochures and is available on the Web site Herpes411.com. The National Medical Association and the American Social Health Association are partners in the campaign.
GSK makes the herpes treatment valacyclovir, sold under the name Valtrex, which has been shown to reduce an infected person's risk of transmitting genital herpes by half. While campaign material does not mention the medication, the Herpes411.com includes a link to the Valtrex Web site.
A survey conducted in the early 1990s found that 48% of blacks had genital herpes, compared with 21% of whites. A follow-up study found that prevalence of sexually transmitted infections has declined to 17% nationwide, though the decline among blacks was not significant, according to the Post.
Some health experts are concerned that the campaign could lead to widespread testing and large-scale treatment of people who do not have herpes symptoms. Federal authorities, such as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, and health groups, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, do not recommend routine screening for genital herpes.
Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, called for more research into whether widespread herpes testing and treatment would be beneficial, adding, "While it is nice to educate people with a campaign like this, at the end of the day, it tells us more about what we don't know than about what we do know."
The Baltimore Health Department declined to partner with GSK on the campaign "because of the lack of evidence to support, as a public health strategy, screening for herpes in people without symptoms," Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein said, adding that "the racial targeting was not an issue that we needed to address to make a decision." The campaign has received the support of the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion, according to the Post. Anita Moncrease, a physician and part-time consultant for the Detroit health department, said, "I am concerned about the negative connotations because this is a sexually transmitted disease. But I am concerned about the public health of the citizens of the city of Detroit more."
Edward Hook, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and chair of the board of the American Social Health Association, said he believes the campaign "will raise awareness across the country," noting, "I don't think even many doctors know how common genital herpes is." However, he added, "My sense is that this is probably a high-risk campaign for GSK."
GSK said the campaign is educational and experimental. The company plans to conduct an informal survey before and after the campaign in each city to determine how or if it affected awareness. GSK official Marc Meachem said, "The first step is to see if we are able to move the needle and increase awareness." Lynn Marks, GSK senior vice president, said that the campaign is not calling for screening specific populations, adding, "We need to reach out increasingly to these populations, not decreasingly" (Brown, Washington Post, 7/24).