HIV Vaccine Study Explained

So yesterday morning I had a really brief post about the new HIV vaccine study that was announced this week. I asked a lot of questions about how the study was conducted, and NPR did a great job of unraveling the study yesterday afternoon. It made me feel like a smarty when they posed many of the same questions that I did.

Here’s the first clip from NPR:

And here’s the second clip from NPR:

I think that it’s really important to stress that an HIV vaccine alone is not going to help us stem the tide of the AIDS epidemic. We still need to have comprehensive safe sex information and an aggressive condom distribution program, both at home and abroad, in order to truly win the fight against AIDS. The second clip explains that everyone who participated in the study had to receive intensive counseling that educated them about how to use a condom, and how to decrease their risk factors. I still think that it’s hard to say if the vaccine itself lead to lower HIV transmission rates, or if the counseling contributed to the lower transmission rates. Consequently, I have to agree that HIV prevention is a yes/and strategy – yes, the vaccine is important, AND you need to practice safer sex.

One of the things that I wanted to bring up yesterday is that I’m really troubled by the fact that this study was a) conducted by the US military, and b) that is was conducted on foreign citizens. What does it say about US foreign policy that we’re willing to test an HIV vaccine on people in Asia, but we’re not willing to test it on our own citizens. The CNN article that I cited said that:

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.

According to Kim, the U.S. military was involved in the study because U.S. service members are at risk and “there’s a national security threat from HIV.”

It’s very problematic to label this an issue of national security, because that sets the ground work for the government to justify any number of approaches towards HIV if they’re doing it for the sake of national security. The HIV travel and immigration ban that the US has is only one possibility. The US could conceivably justify putting people with HIV into detention camps if they said that it was an issue of national security. Don’t believe me? Ask a Japanese-American who was put into an internment camp during WWII.

OK, so I guess I really know how to be a Debbie Downer. But I think that the results of this study need to be taken with a grain of salt, even though they do provide a glimmer of hope that we might be able to stop the AIDS epidemic at some point in my lifetime.

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  1. We talked about this in my MPH class. My professor is an accomplished HIV researcher.

    He said that both groups got the same counseling, so the counseling effect was controlled for between the groups. You can use this information to talk about the difference between the two groups, but not between the intervention group and a group in society that has not received the counseling.

    According to my professor (and my other research mentor he works with), there are a few reasons these studies are allowed to be done with a placebo group. First of all, there is no acceptable proven HIV vaccine or medical treatment that is a pharmaceutical preventative of HIV transmission. Secondly, both groups do get a demonstrable benefit by participating in the study – which is receiving counseling and attention from the personnel involved in the study.

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