It's been proven that education is the best prevention against infection. But how can you expect sex workers in impoverished countries to go buy condoms from miles away when they can't even feed their families? In India, homosexuality is illegal, making HIV education for gay men difficult if not impossible. In South Africa, there is a booming industry in caskets, particularly for infants. The country is almost depleted of cemetery space forcing families to bury corpses on top of each other.
So when I heard about the HIV vaccine trials I thought, "Great -- hardcore AIDS activism, something I can physically participate in. The virus is moving too efficiently for education and prevention measures alone." So I became a vaccine trial volunteer, formally signing up for the Merck MRK Adenovirus Serotype 5 (MRKAd5) HIV-1 Gag Vaccine Study at Project ACHIEVE. I will be joining volunteers in Thailand, Brazil, Peru and South Africa in this Phase I study that will last five years.
Before coming to Body Positive, I was an assistant project director for an HIV-positive gay and bisexual men's intervention project, so I have firsthand experience with AIDS prevention research -- but it has been a novel experience being on the other side of the experiment. Let me tell you, there are lots of perks to being a participant: not only reimbursement for each visit but also HIV pre- and post-test counseling, free pregnancy tests, a comprehensive physical exam and excellent phlebotomists. Project ACHIEVE's office, conveniently located by Union Square, is always chock full with fresh coffee, little juice boxes, snacks. Coincidentally, most of the staff are "cat people," like myself, so after the initial barrage of appointments, it started to feel like my second place of work.
It's a little scary to be injected with an unknown substance that's never been tested before. So what mysterious witch's brew am I being injected with? Simply put, I'm being vaccinated with proteins that look like HIV (but are not) that are attached to a weakened cold virus to see if an immune response can be produced. It's like showing your immune system a picture of a known shoplifter and not allowing him or her to enter your body. Isn't it fascinating to be included in cutting edge science at its humanitarian finest?
So why don't more people want to participate? The consent form explains that there is a possibility of being socially discriminated against because of my participation in the trial. Although there is no way I can become infected with HIV from being vaccinated nor can I transmit the virus to anyone else (because I don't have it), there is the risk of testing "false positive." Fortunately, advanced HIV testing can distinguish a vaccine response from a true infection.
Just to measure the yardstick of stigma and HIV, I asked some random boy I met at a bar if he would have sex with me knowing that I was involved in an HIV vaccine trial. He said he'd definitely think twice. As usual, HIV fear and stigma come crashing together. What if I falsely test positive as a result of the vaccine? I could be stigmatized on false grounds, an interesting experience for an HIV educator who is constantly teetering on the edge of HIV prevention yet at the same time trying to reduce the stigma associated with being HIV-positive. Well, you know what? Screw it. I don't have to disclose my participation in the trial because I'm not putting anyone at harm.
I've been vaccinated twice now and soon, I'll get my final shot. To date, I have had no side effects or any related health problems. I look forward to seeing my friends at Project ACHIEVE every few weeks and I like the idea of being part of a global experiment that could change the next generation and generations to come.
I'm impatient. I want results. Enough is enough already. This scourge of AIDS must be stopped. Here's my arm; take as much blood as you need.
Gloria Abitol is Director of Outreach and Education at Body Positive.