Herpes Awareness Project Divides Health Officials

An awareness campaign by drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline aimed to educate African-Americans about genital herpes, a sexually-transmitted disease that is far more common among them than any other racial or ethnic group, is causing debate among health officials.

The "Say Yes to Knowing" campaign by Glaxo, together with the National Medical Association, the country’s main society of black physicians, and the American Social Health Association, was introduced last month in Detroit, where it had the support of the local health department. However, the health commissioner in Baltimore declined to endorse it.

Some specialists worry that the campaign may lead to widespread testing and large-scale treatment of people who not have symptoms, a strategy not recommended by federal health authorities.

Baltimore’s health commissioner, Joshua M. Sharfstein, said his department turned down Glaxo’s request to become a local partner in its campaign due to "lack of evidence to support, as a public health strategy, screening for herpes in people without symptoms."

For their part, Glaxo officials describe the campaign as largely an educational experiment. The company makes one of three drugs for genital herpes, which is caused by herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2. The infection cannot be cured, but it can be suppressed with daily medication.

A federal study shows that 21 percent of American adults had the infection, with 48 percent of African-Americans surveyed having the disease.

The virus commonly causes painful, pimple-like sores on the genitals. Although they would eventually go away even without treatment, they could reappear every few months. In most people, recurrences are less frequent as time passes. Even an infected person who show no signs of symptoms can still transmit the virus to a sexual partner.

Apart from pain and embarrassment, genital herpes poses two chief hazards. Active infection in late pregnancy can cause devastating illness in a newborn. It also triples the risk of acquiring AIDS virus from an HIV-infected person.

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