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On The Front Lines

On The Front Lines

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After a few moments of perusing status updates and photos of friends on Facebook, an ad caught Michael Banko's eye. The ad sought participants in a study for an HIV/AIDS vaccine. This wasn't Banko first association with HIV awareness, research, and prevention. In 2006, he raised money to run the National AIDS Marathon. But becoming a vaccine volunteer, he decided, was his duty. 'I consider myself a fairly healthy gay male, and I've been lucky as far as the whole HIV/AIDS thing goes,' he says. 'But I knew I could do my part to help others as well.' After Banko threw his hat into the ring he was subject to several rounds of paperwork, blood work, screening, and interviews. Michele Vertucci, the clinic manager at the AIDS Research Alliance in Los Angeles, says that potential participants must first share their medical background and lifestyle habits during a telephone interview. Once advancing past that round, candidates come in to the clinic for a screening appointment, which involves the signing of a thorough consent form. After which, Vertucci or another administrator meets with the candidates individually to outline everything they face during the trial, including the length of the study and the basics of vaccine or treatment trials. Trials for vaccines like Banko's typically lasts 3-5 years, while trials for treatment drugs like Merck's Isentress drug, which the ARA evaluated, last up to two years. In either case, it's a substantial commitment, and research organizations like the ARA want to make sure that participants are dedicated to checking in regularly and staying on top of their health. During the testing phase, volunteers are either given a placebo, or the real drug or vaccine. They're then expected to to report regularly on their health and to be screened for changes in their condition. The ARA's current vaccine study only has 55 enrolled. Vertucci acknowledges that some potential candidates for study don't even consider participating in the AIDS vaccine trials due to the fear that they might contract the virus, or because society's view on HIV has changed. 'Back in 1998, we tested the first [AIDS] vaccine study in the U.S.,' she says. 'At that time, we first screened 400 people, and enrolled 200 into the study. In 1998, there was a shared knowledge among the community that we needed a vaccination. And I think, with this current vaccine study, it's been more difficult in some ways to recruit people than it was in 1998. It's a different atmosphere. Now, it's no longer viewed as a fatal disease. Young people now just don't think they'll get infected, or others have a fatalistic approach.' As for fears about becoming infected via a vaccine, Vertucci says that shouldn't be a concern. 'If we were doing something like a hepatitis B study, people wouldn't have the same fears, or concerns,' Vertucci says. 'The HIV is man-made in a lab, so a person can't get HIV from the vaccine, and you can't give it to a partner. It's not a live virus. Once people hear that, then they're like, 'Oh, O.K., yeah, I can do this.' It's just like when you were a kid and you got a polio vaccination.' Some study participants agree to be in trials for the small compensation. Others take the opportunity to try treatment drugs that have not been released to the market, but could still help counter disease symptoms or treatment side effcts, like diarrhea or lipodystrophy. Testers like Banko do it because he knows it could help pave the way for a world without AIDS. 'My friends who are HIV-positive, seem to be thankful,' he says. 'Even though it won't be helping them, unfortunately, they understand why this is so necessary.'

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