And no, this doesn't have to do with condoms or getting tested.
Today is HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, so I have to take a moment to get personal on you.
I'm in the middle of reading And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts, one of the first major books on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It's about the system failure of institutions and communities - the government, the medical community, the gay community - to respond to a rising epidemic. It is set in the early 1980s when the infection was spreading like wildfire. Since then, treatment has become available and we've made great strides in treating individuals living with HIV/AIDS.
And yet we are losing. Today, for every person that begins treatment for HIV infection, 2-3 more people become newly infected. History has shown us that no major epidemic has ever been successfully controlled without a vaccine. Which brings me to today.
Many of us take vaccines for granted. We've just achieved a cervical cancer vaccine. Every winter, everyone flocks to get a flu vaccine to the degree that there's always a shortage. Every child gets an MMR vaccine. Hepatitis B. Polio. On and on and on. People know how critical vaccines are. What seems to be be unknown is that these vaccines do not come out of thin air. They come from people volunteering to help develop them so that the rest of our country, and the world, can live longer.
And that's where you come in.
Nearly three years ago I participated in an HIV vaccine trial through the National Institutes of Health. It wasn't difficult - when I had a visit (I had a total of about a dozen), I hopped on the DC Metro a couple of stops to the NIH campus on the Red Line. I did a few visits of background medical counseling and routine blood tests, the same you would get at a yearly check-up with your physician. The vaccine was given in separate doses- all with careful monitoring of symptoms. The extremely courteous, friendly, professional medical staff called regularly to check up and make sure I was okay. I was given a chart to monitor any reaction I had, which was none. The follow-up visits consisted of simple blood tests and inquiries on any symptoms. It was a simple series of medical visits, and I was generously compensated for my time. In fact, I found the experience so rewarding I'm back participating in an avian flu vaccine trial right now.
And I've been tested multiple times since then and am still HIV-negative, as the trial vaccine cannot cause HIV infection. From the NIH website set up for volunteer intake (emphasis theirs):
Q: Can a study vaccine cause HIV infection?
It is impossible to get HIV infection or develop AIDS from experimental vaccines. They are not made from live HIV, killed HIV, weakened HIV, or HIV-infected cells. The investigational vaccines in this trial cannot cause HIV infection.
Now, I'll be the first to say I'm no expert on epidemics, and I know items like getting tested, combating stigma in the African-American community, and condom use are important. But finding a vaccine is also critical. Late last year, with the participation of more than 16,000 volunteers, Thai researchers made a breakthrough in finding that volunteers who received a combination HIV vaccine were 31% less likely to become infected. It's modest progress, but it's a start, and it made headlines around the world for a reason. I've checked back on progress at the National Institutes of Health, where I volunteered, and the products they are working on have also made headway. We are closer than ever.
But the vaccines you've received don't make themselves, and an HIV vaccine won't either. That's where you come in.
If you are a man who has sex with men, between the ages of 18-45 and HIV negative (along with some additional requirements), please consider volunteering. You can call 1-866-411-1010, e-mail email@example.com or go to www.HopeTakesAction.org. Ongoing trials are enrolling right now. There is no risk of infection from the vaccine and you will be (generously, in my view) compensated for your time. And there are trial clinics all over the country.
If you aren't, you can still help by passing along the information to family, friends and colleagues who are. Think of people you know who might be interested. You can also post it on social networking websites. Please take a minute.
No matter if you're eligible to volunteer or not, there's something you can do to help end the HIV epidemic. We will never get eradicate these diseases if we don't and step up individually. Lots of people volunteered to make what are now routine vaccines to keep us healthy, and you can help do the same. Please, mark HIV Vaccine Awareness Day by taking a giant step forward towards a cure.
Cross-posted at my home blog, OpenLeft.com, where I write and organize on LGBT issues.