As you are likely aware, genital herpes is not only a common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, but around the world as well. In New Zealand, for example, about 1 in 5 adults has genital herpes infection, a figure similar to that of the U.S. Yet while genital herpes is common in New Zealand, there is still a great deal of ignorance and stigma surrounding the subject. Fortunately for New Zealanders, one organization is working diligently to change that—the New Zealand Herpes Foundation.
Founded in 1994 by a group of patients and health professionals, the New Zealand Herpes Foundation (NZHF) provides accurate, up-to-date information, support, and understanding to people diagnosed with genital herpes. The organization operates a toll-free helpline and offers free resources for patients, including an informational booklet and a brochure on herpes myths and facts, as well as referrals to local sexual health clinics and support groups. Most recently, the NZHF embarked on a six-week, national campaign specifically to try and reduce the stigma attached to a herpes diagnosis and educate the public and health professionals about herpes.
The campaign, targeting both the general public and health professionals, has focused on a key message: herpes is common, manageable, and treatable. As Claire Hurst, Manager of the NZHF noted, “It is important to understand that herpes is a very common and largely invisible problem. For most of those who get infected it is not a health issue. For those for whom it is, it can be treated. And knowing the facts will make it much more manageable.” As part of the campaign, the NZHF promoted this message through a variety of means, including postcards and posters distributed nationwide, advertising in key national magazines, a PR campaign to create media interest, and regional seminars titled “Herpes: Dispelling the Myths.”
In addition to promoting clear and simple messages about herpes, the NZHF also launched an online survey to learn more about the opinions and experiences of people with herpes in New Zealand. While the survey was ongoing at the time this issue went to print, Ms. Hurst shared some preliminary results with The Helper. The survey covers questions about diagnosis, treatment, and personal relationships, as well as patients’ experiences with healthcare providers. One interesting finding: about 50 percent of respondents stated that they would find it helpful if their health professional had been more knowledgeable and provided better emotional support. This is one area where the NZHF concentrates its efforts.
As Ms. Hurst notes, “This certainly is an ongoing and common challenge to us and one of the goals of the NZHF is to educate medical and health professionals and to provide them with resources to equip them to provide better care to patients. Clearly a task that is ongoing, although I estimate about one third of all our general practitioners in New Zealand do use our resources and provide very good care. All sexual health clinics—23 in total in New Zealand—use our resources and provide out toll free number to their patients.” Additionally, the organization provides its “Guidelines for the Management of Genital Herpes in New Zealand” document, updated every two years, free to all general practitioners and relevant health professionals in New Zealand.
Educating health professionals is certainly important, but only one side of the equation. Making the public aware of basic facts about this common infection and empowering patients with accurate information and resources is essential as well. As the NZHF survey reveals, public awareness efforts like the current campaign are important and necessary. While slightly more than half of respondents reported that their partners were “always” or “mostly” supportive when they first told partners of their infection, nearly half also reported that their partners were “always” or “mostly” uninformed as well. When asked to cite examples of support they would like or need, several of those responding indicated that efforts to inform the public and reduce stigma are essential, and also cited the NZHF website as an important resource in dispelling the myths about herpes.
Indeed, the NZHF offers a number of resources on its website, including its online guide for patients and new publication, “Herpes . . . Myth Vs. Fact,” making the site a valuable resource not just for New Zealanders but anyone looking for information on herpes. Learn more about the NZHF and its current public awareness campaign at the NZHF website.