A Shot of Truth

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Breakin’ it Down: Finding a Vaccine

By Steve Wakefield

Last week, BlackAIDS.org reported on a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases survey that found a majority of African Americans believe that HIV vaccines are the best hope for controlling the global AIDS epidemic and are confident such vaccines can be made. But while most of those surveyed felt it important to help support HIV vaccine research, a majority also expressed reluctance to support a friend or family member’s participation in an actual study.

The survey also showed that some of us were out of the loop on what vaccine research is all about. Nearly four out of five Blacks either thought they could get HIV through a vaccine or didn’t know whether it was possible. Nearly half of the Black respondents to the poll said they believed a vaccine exists but is being kept secret.

For years, AIDS advocates have warned that not enough people of color of all stripes are participating in vaccine research. The same can be said for clinical trials of medications to treat the disease. The NIAID study suggests part of the reason for that disparity just may be that we don’t know all the facts about the process. So here’re some popular myths about vaccine research, along with the answers to set you straight.

Myth: They’ve already found a vaccine that will protect me from contracting HIV.
Truth: Nope. But we’re working hard on it, because 13,000 people get infected every day.

What exactly is a vaccine? It’s a substance, usually injected, that teaches your body to fend off a virus that might invade before the infection actually occurs. That way your body’s already prepped for the fight if you’re ever exposed. Some people get a flu shot every year, for instance. Most people get shots as a child so that they never have to worry about polio or measles. Studies known as “clinical trials” are being conducted to find one that works to protect us from HIV, too. It’s also possible that a vaccine could slow down the disease’s progression in people already infected with HIV.

So far, over 20,000 people have helped test more than 30 potential vaccines, but we still don’t know which one will work. That means many more people are needed.

Myth: You can catch HIV by volunteering for vaccine research.
Truth: Nope. It is impossible to get HIV infection or develop AIDS from experimental vaccines, because they are not made from live HIV, killed HIV, weakened HIV, or HIV-infected cells of any sort. It just can’t happen.

The people working to find an HIV vaccine are the same people who found the drugs we use to treat HIV and AIDS today. Strict rules governing medical research prevent them from testing a product that has any chance of giving someone HIV.

Myth: Medical researchers can’t be trusted, especially those funded by the government.
Truth: Our community has certainly had problems with medical researchers. Tuskegee anyone? But today’s HIV vaccine studies are closely monitored by several watchdog groups, and their research teams include representatives from the communities in which the studies are taking place.

There are also local groups called Community Advisory Boards, or CABs, which take a hard look at what each study is doing to protect volunteers and help those volunteers them understand the research taking place. CABs include people who have been in other studies, nurses, college students, journalists, parents and others who understand the science and can voice community concerns.

Myth: Black people can benefit from whatever vaccine they find without participating in the research.
Truth: I’m afraid not. If Blacks don’t participate in large enough numbers, we will not know if the vaccine works for our lives and bodies too.

Some other vaccines are showing that gender makes a difference, perhaps race does well. We need to develop a vaccine that will work in the context of everyone’s actual day-to-day life. Do diet, exercise patterns, stress levels, the presence of other illnesses or any host of factors that vary between racial and economic groups matter? The only way to know is to do the studies with enough Black men and women participating.

Myth: When they find a vaccine AIDS will be over.
Truth: If only it were so. A vaccine is not a cure. And it will not single-handedly end the AIDS crisis. People already infected — that is, people living with HIV today — will still need better treatment and better care. And even with a vaccine, condom use, abstinence and other ongoing HIV-prevention efforts will still be important tools for stopping the virus’ spread.

For more information about vaccine research, or to find study sites near you, visit the website of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network.

Steve Wakefield is associate director for community education of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network and a regular science contributor to BlackAIDS.org.

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