Get Informed, Educate, Support
BY Phill Wilson
June 30 2004 12:00 AM ET
Of all the myths about HIV, the biggest is that the epidemic is over. I wish that it were so. While it is true that there are therapies and treatments that help people live longer, healthier lives and that AIDS is not the automatic death sentence it once was, there is no cure! I should say that again: There is no cure!
Our best hope for a cure is a preventive vaccine against HIV. That is how both smallpox and polio were beaten. Medical research did not come up with a way to cure infected people; instead, it came up with vaccines that prevent people from getting infected in the first place. A preventive HIV vaccine is particularly important for black people because we bear the brunt of this disease. Each year an estimated 40,000 people in the United States become infected with HIV. African-Americans represent 54% of these new HIV infections, although we make up only 12% of the U.S. population. Black women account for 73% of new HIV infections among all American women. AIDS is the leading cause of death for African-Americans between the ages of 25 and 44! I will stop here before your eyes glaze over. But AIDS is no joke'no matter your race, age, gender, or sexual orientation.
To date, more than 12,000 individuals have volunteered in HIV vaccine clinical trials. More than 20 promising HIV vaccines are in various stages of testing, and more possible candidates will be studied in the next two years than in the past five. Yet there is still no vaccine. There is still no cure. The good news, though, is that scientists are still searching for a vaccine to prevent HIV infection. Each new test or clinical trial brings us one step closer.
'But what can I do?' you might say. Well, funny you should ask. We all need to learn more about vaccine research, and you can be part of making a vaccine a reality by volunteering for a clinical trial. Oh, I can hear the excuses already: 'You can get HIV from the vaccine' (that is flat-out wrong) or 'I don't want to be a guinea pig' (which sloughs the critical responsibility to someone else). There are hundreds of excuses for not getting involved, but you need only one reason to get involved: You care about yourself and your loved ones.
Mark McLaurin, a young black man from Baltimore now living in New York, put it this way: 'I'm volunteering to stop a killer.' Four of McLaurin's five closest friends died of AIDS. He volunteered to honor them. 'As someone who is HIV-negative, I volunteer in an HIV vaccine trial as a way to make a real contribution. My hope is that we will have an effective, preventive HIV vaccine someday. It's the best way to stop HIV from spreading.'
Now, I'm not asking everybody to sign up for a clinical trial. But more of us need to volunteer, and all of us need to get better informed and involved in some way. The sad thing is too few of us know the facts about HIV vaccines or know how important they are. The reason children in America do not die of measles or get crippled by polio is because of vaccines. So you can help by becoming educated about HIV vaccines and helping to educate others.
Community support is essential in efforts to break down stigmas and myths about AIDS. Developing an effective HIV vaccine depends upon individuals getting informed, educating, and supporting each other. If people like us are not involved in the development of an HIV vaccine'whether you define 'us' by race, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc.'how will we know if it will work on 'people like us'? If we don't know the facts, how will we decide whether to get vaccinated or one day have our kids vaccinated to protect them?
We cannot rely on others to do the work for us. Wishing for a cure for AIDS will not make it so. If you would like more information about HIV vaccines, feel free to contact me via e-mail or visit the National Institutes of Health online. Today, approximately 40 million people around the world are living with HIV. AIDS will not stop killing us unless we make the commitment to stop the killer. If we do not step up, who will?
Wilson is the founder and executive director of the Black AIDS Institute.