A new campaign to promote its Valtrex drug for genital herpes - and, ostensibly, raise awareness of the disease among African-Americans - is prompting criticism that Glaxo is pushing people to get testing that most public health experts say is unwarranted. The "Say Yes to Knowing" campaign partners Glaxo with the National Medical Association, the country's main society of black physicians, and the American Social Health Association (ASHA),The Washington Post reports.
But the US Preventive Services Task Force, which advises the Department of Health and Human Services, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reject routine screening. Why? As the Post notes - Telling people they have an incurable, sexually transmitted disease can have serious social and emotional consequences. There's no evidence that long-term treatment of millions of asymptomatic people is worth the time, effort and anguish. And treatment can be expensive: generic acyclovir, the oldest anti-herpes drug, costs as little as $9.96 for a month's supply, but Glaxo's Valtrex costs $192.88.
Whether testing and treatment of a subpopulation, such as black adults, are useful and cost-effective has not been studied. Baltimore's health commissioner, Josh Sharfstein, tells the Post his department rejected Glaxo's request to become a local partner in its campaign "because of the lack of evidence to support, as a public health strategy, screening for herpes in people without symptoms." He adds that "the racial targeting was not an issue that we needed to address to make a decision."
For their part, Glaxo officials describe the campaign as largely an educational experiment, and is surveying about 100 people in Atlanta, Baltimore and Detroit to see if they learned anything about genital herpes. "The first step is to see if we are able to move the needle and increase awareness," says Marc Meachem of Glaxo. And Lynn Marks, a Glaxo senior vp, tells the paper that "we haven't said that we should screen any populations."
But...there are 100,000 brochures and a Glaxo web site, Herpes411.com, a message says, "A simple blood test is the best way to know if you have the virus." It goes on to say that people who think they may have been exposed "should ask your healthcare provider about being tested." The campaign material does not mention Glaxo's drug, but a Web page devoted to it can be reached through the herpes site with two clicks.
Georges Benjamin, head of the American Public Health Association, says more research is needed to determine whether widespread testing and chronic treatment for herpes are worthwhile. "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," he tells the Post.
But Anita Moncrease is convinced. A physician and consultant who works part time for the Detroit health department, Moncrease urged Glaxo to engage other city health departments and is negotiating with the company for help in paying for blood tests for uninsured people in Detroit's public clinics, the Post reports.
She admits there is a risk of stigma and stereotype with a message aimed at one racial group. "I am concerned about the negative connotations because this is a sexually transmitted disease," she says. "But I am concerned about the public health of the citizens of the city of Detroit more."