Dr. H. Hunter Handsfield, a longtime trailblazer in sexually transmitted diseases research, received the nation’s highest honor in the STD field during the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2010 National STD Prevention Conference this week in Atlanta.
Handsfield is the 2010 recipient of the Thomas Parran Award, named for Dr. Thomas Parran, Jr., U.S. Surgeon General from 1936 to 1948 and the chief developer of modern STD prevention strategies. The American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association (ASTDA) bestows the award in recognition of “long and distinguished” contributions to STD research and prevention.
Handsfield, a UW clinical professor of medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, and of epidemiology, has been a leader in STD prevention and research since the early 1970s, when modern scientific investigation in STDs was gaining public and scientific attention and moving beyond what was then believed to be just a national gonorrhea epidemic. Handsfield was selected by unanimous decision of ASTDA’s awards committee, said Dr. Bradley Stoner, committee chair and associate professor of medicine and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Over the past 30 years, Dr. Handsfield’s contributions to our field have been enormous,” said Dr. Edward W. Hook III, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, in his nominating letter. “Dr. Handsfield is a proven and influential investigator, an innovator in the provision of health services for persons with and at risk for STDs and an effective mentor who has guided several of us forward in our careers within the field of STDs/HIV prevention.”
Handsfield is a senior research leader at the Battelle Centers for Public Health Research, where he concentrates on domestic and international HIV prevention research, especially HIV/STD prevention in Zimbabwe. He got his start in STD research and prevention as an infectious disease fellow at UW between 1971-1973, following his residency there in internal medicine.
From 1978 to 2005, Handsfield was director of the STD Control Program for Public Health Seattle & King County, where he honed his trailblazing skills. Under Handsfield’s leadership, the Seattle/King County STD Control Program was among the first in the nation to expand STD prevention efforts beyond syphilis and gonorrhea to include emerging syndromes like genital herpes, chlamydial infections and the other 20 or so common sexually transmitted infections. Handsfield implemented a comprehensive, holistic style and reliance on physician assistants and nurse practitioners to provide high quality clinical and prevention services—revolutionary at the time but now the national standard.
“As much or more than anyone in the United States, Hunter’s career has really bridged the divide between academic research and the practice of public health,” said Dr. Matthew Golden, the current Director of the Seattle/King County HIV/STD Program. “His career is a model for people who want to integrate research with public health prevention.”
Handsfield’s research also established current standards for routine testing of women for chlamydia, the most common STD caused by bacteria.
“We initiated the nation’s first routine chlamydia screening program,” Handsfield said. “We did it first in the STD clinic, quickly expanded to public health family planning clinics, then to the community level — all pretty much before other health departments were testing even in STD clinics.”
Handsfield summarizes his career as one that was broadly based on prevention of all STDs, including HIV/AIDS. The ASTDA awards committee cited his signal contributions to understanding to understanding the epidemiology, clinical manifestations, treatment and prevention of gonorrhea. He first defined the frequency and importance of asymptomatic, silent gonorrhea in men and how gonorrhea spreads in populations. He led the research efforts that established the current first-line gonorrhea treatments with the antibiotics ceftriaxone or cefixime.
In the 1980s, Handsfield was among the first public health experts to promote routine, voluntary HIV testing of persons at risk, a controversial strategy at the time. Two decades later, as a visiting scientist at CDC, he helped develop and promote CDC’s current recommendations for routine HIV testing of all persons seeking health care, now a cornerstone of HIV prevention.
In selecting Handsfield for the Parran Award, the nominating committee also cited his leadership in research and promotion of expedited partner therapy, whereby the partners of persons with chlamydia or gonorrhea may receive antibiotics without necessarily being examined in person. Under Handsfield’s leadership as visiting scientist, expedited partner therapy became recommended by CDC as a standard prevention strategy.
Other accomplishments cited by the committee include Handsfield’s research on syphilis, in particular the frequency of early invasion of the brain and spinal cord, setting the stage for later complications; policies to prevent genital herpes, especially transmission to newborns; research establishing the importance of sex in transmitting cytomegalovirus; strategies for STD/HIV prevention in men who have sex with men; and three decades of consulting with CDC, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other agencies on treatment and prevention of STDs.
“Hunter was perfecting the art of ‘program science’ or ‘implementation research’ well before these terms became fashionable,” said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, ASTDA president. “He is an amazing example of someone who has always quickly grasped the implications that cutting-edge scientific discovery could have for enhancing health, both at the community and individual patient levels. His broad intellect and curiosity, deep generosity with trainees and colleagues, and wonderful sense of humor — beyond all of his notable research accomplishments — make him especially deserving of the Parran Award.”
Handsfield has authored or co-authored over 250 research papers, reviews and book chapters in some of the most commonly used medical textbooks. He also wrote his own book, Color Atlas and Synopsis of STDs, published by McGraw-Hill, which has been a standard educational resource for health care providers worldwide since the 1990s. He is working now on the third edition.
See the list of prior Parran Award winners.