African Americans are more supportive of HIV vaccine research than the general population, according to a government-led survey, but are far more likely to believe participating in one puts them at risk for contracting HIV.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a division of the National Institutes of Health, released the findings from its survey last week. Between December 2002 and February 2003, NIAID polled just over 3,500 U.S. adults to find out what Americans think about the search for an HIV vaccine. Researchers first surveyed 2,008 people randomly selected from the general population, then polled another 1,501 people from three groups hit hard by AIDS — African Americans, Latinos and homosexual and bisexual men.
The results, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, shed light on questions that have plagued vaccine researchers for years: Why do fewer people of color participate in vaccine trials and what can be done to change that fact?
The NIAID survey suggests that one answer is African Americans simply don’t know enough about the process.
Black respondents to the poll sent mixed messages about their level of trust in AIDS research. Almost half of Blacks in the poll, 47 percent, said they believed an HIV vaccine already exists and is being kept secret. Only 18 percent of the general population and 26 percent of Latinos said the same.
Yet, 55 percent of African Americans nevertheless said they trust the U.S. government to protect volunteers in vaccine research trials, roughly on par with the general population.
Researchers however found that African Americans and Latinos are deeply misinformed about what exactly vaccine research does.
No vaccine “candidate” — as researchers call the various experimental vaccines now being tested — causes actual HIV infection. But 78 percent of Blacks and 68 percent of Latinos polled either thought they could get HIV through the vaccines being tested or did not know whether it was possible. Only 24 percent of the general population made the same mistake.
“It is clear that we have a lot of work to do in explaining vaccine research,” said study co-author Matthew Murguia in a NIAID press statement announcing the results.
Despite their uncertainty about the process, African Americans strongly supported it as an idea. Eighty-six percent felt it was important to personally support vaccine research in some way, and Blacks were more likely than any other group to express “strong support” for family members volunteering for trials (35 percent, as opposed to 29 percent of the general population).
The search for an HIV vaccine is a long and slow one. Each trial must go through years of lab and animal testing before beginning with human volunteers. Around 40 potential vaccines have made it into human trials, but none yet has shown lasting promise. According to the NIAID statement, there are more than 30 human trials either now underway or in planning stages. Those trials will require tens of thousands of volunteers.
“It is essential that current and future trials involve volunteers from diverse communities,” said NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, “to enable us to find a vaccine that works for all populations.”