GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) with the support of the Detroit Department of Health, the National Medical Association (NMA), and ASHA launched the “Say Yes to Knowing” campaign this summer, designed to highlight the high prevalence of genital herpes among African American adults and encourage individuals to talk with their healthcare providers about personal risk and prevention. While the campaign was designed to raise awareness, it raised eyebrows as well, drawing critique from some public health officials.
National surveillance data indicate that infection rate of genital herpes among African Americans is disproportionately high—nearly one in two adults, compared to the overall national average of approximately one in five. “Given the impact and consequences of herpes, it is important to raise awareness and to empower individuals to break the silence and help stem the tide,” says Dr. Albert W. Morris, President of the National Medical Association, a campaign cosponsor. “Combating this silent epidemic requires that people talk to their doctor or healthcare professional about genital herpes, so if they do have the disease they can manage it effectively and reduce their risk of spreading it.”
Some public health officials, however, expressed concern about the campaign and the questions it raises about race, disease, marketing, and testing. With an emphasis on prevalence and testing, some believe the campaign encourages widespread, unnecessary testing, even in those who may not have symptoms. A number of national organizations, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, reject routine screening for several reasons. There are can be an emotional impact for patients when telling them they have a sexually transmitted infection for which there is treatment, but no cure. Furthermore, there is no indication that treating thousands of asymptomatic people is helpful.
The Baltimore’s health commissioner, Joshua M. Sharfstein indicated that he did not plan to endorse this campaign, citing a “lack of evidence to support, as a public health strategy, screening for herpes in people without symptoms.” He added, though, that “the racial targeting was not an issue that we needed to address to make a decision.”
Dr. Edward Hook, infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and chairman of the board of ASHA, acknowledges the controversy, noting “My sense is that this is probably a high-risk campaign for GSK.” Nevertheless, Hook believes that the campaign “will raise awareness across the country,” adding, “I don’t think even many doctors know how common genital herpes is.”
The campaign launched in Detroit in June with a series of print and radio advertisements and public events, and was promoted in additional cities in July. Educational materials, including patient awareness brochures and posters have also been developed for healthcare providers.