If I learned nothing else on a recent night in Harlem where my husband and I attended the screening and announcement of the winning Generation V videos sponsored by the New York City HIV Vaccine Trials Unit, I did get that message loud and clear. I am writing about this here on Bilerico because HIV vaccine trials are taking place not just in New York City but in cities across the country. I hope my interview with one of the doctors managing those trials may inspire some folks to participate in this important venture.
At the screening, we met some very talented and beautiful people, including SeanMichael Rodgers, CEO of EMBRACE TV, and his partner, the performer/songwriter Dy'Ari. Their video won the Valor Award for best video targeted to gay men. My interview with them, their winning video and my interview with Dr. Beryl Koblin, after the break.
Generation V is a video contest hosted by the NYC HIV Vaccine Trials Unit (a collaboration of Project ACHIEVE and Columbia University Medical Center) and co-sponsored by Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD). The contest provided education to community members about HIV vaccine research, and got participants to create and submit original videos to be viewed and voted on by other community members.
Dr. Beryl Koblin, PhD, from Project ACHIEVE spoke with me about the HIV vaccine trials.
Currently, the largest and most exciting trial that is taking place in the United States is called HVTN 505. The goal of the trial is to see whether or not the vaccines can teach the immune system to suppress the amount of virus when and if it enters to body.
--Is there any prediction as to how long before we have a successful vaccine?
It will likely be many years before we have a safe and highly effective HIV vaccine. There was very exciting news this past year with the results of a vaccine trial in Thailand. The group of participants who got the vaccine had a 31% lower HIV infection rate compared to those who got placebo. While the level of efficacy was quite modest, it demonstrates that an HIV vaccine is possible.
--Has anyone gotten even so much as mildly sick because of participation in the trials?
The most common effects of receiving an HIV vaccine are local reactions (such as sore arm, redness at the injection site) and some systemic effects (such tiredness and headaches). These are common reactions to many vaccines.
--I know the virus mutates easily, almost aggressively. Once a vaccine is developed, won't the virus just mutate to avoid extinction?
That's a great question; and one of the greatest challenges in developing medications and vaccines against this virus has been the fact that it can replicate very quickly and mutate, thus avoiding suppression/control by the immune system. One of the ways that researchers have been working to address this challenge is by looking for pieces of the virus that are believed to be least likely to "change" and are common across many viruses. The goal is to insert copies of these regions into a vaccine and present to the immune system, teaching it to react to it quickly and effectively when and if the virus enters the body.
--Is there a way for HIV+ people to participate?
Yes, there is. Although the vaccines we are testing are for HIV negative individuals, we are trying to spread awareness about this important research among many groups. HIV positive individuals have always been important advocates and spokespersons for HIV education, research and awareness. HIV positive individuals can participate by becoming educated about HIV prevention and HIV vaccines and by speaking to their communities about the local and international effort to find a vaccine; they can talk to their HIV negative partners and friends about ways to protect themselves and about getting involved in HIV prevention and vaccine research.
--I've heard some scary stats about new infection rates - what are the most significant recent stats? Stats specific to NYC? Stats specific to south Florida? Stats that are age group specific?
The CDC just released a report (MMWR Sept 24, 2010) on surveys that were done among men who have sex with men (MSM) in 21 cities in the US. Among the 8,153 MSM interviewed, 19% were infected with HIV. Of those infected, almost half (44%) were unaware of their infection. In NYC, the percent of MSM found to be infected was 29%. In Miami, the percent of MSM found to be infected was 25%. This information shows MSM continue to highly affected by HIV and many infected men do knot know they are infected.
--HIV seems to be concentrated in urban areas - advice for at-risk people in fly-over states?
Although HIV is concentrated in urban areas, there are more non-urban areas, particularly in the South, where HIV has had a significant impact.
--What are the difficulties in outreach to the community most at risk?
Great question. New York City is a big place with lots of media and that is a significant challenge. We have found that the personal touch - reaching out to individuals with messages that are relevant to them is our most effective way of doing outreach.
--Aren't young at-risk people immune to messaging?
Our challenge is to figure out the ways to meet young people where they are. We have developed new methods such as tapping into social media networks and great work like yours on blogs to help reach a wide variety of persons. This just one part of the community outreach program both here in New York City and in cities across the country. We also do counseling, education and treatment. Contact us at nycvaccine.org.
Here is my interview with Seanmichael and Dy'Ari, preceded by their winning video "I Declare War Generation V Anthem".
There is not a single LGBT person in the world who does not dream of the day when we will be free of this disease. Please share information about the trials with everyone who has ever lost a friend or a lover or a relative to HIV.