BY SAM SPOKONY | A recruiter for a government-sponsored H.I.V. prevention study thinks that members of New York City’s gay community aren’t doing enough to get involved and to educate themselves about the importance of finding an H.I.V. vaccine.
“There’s just a general feeling of complacency here, that it isn’t such a big deal,” said Damon Jacobs, a recruiter for Project ACHIEVE. The 20-year-old organization based in Union Square specializes in research with the ultimate goal of eliminating new H.I.V. infections in both men and women.
Project ACHIEVE, along with Columbia University Medical Center, is one of more than 20 sites nationwide currently being used to conduct HVTN-505, a clinical study designed to explore the efficacy of an investigational H.I.V. vaccine regimen. Researchers believe the study could answer important questions leading to the discovery and development of more effective vaccines in the future.
HVTN-505, which began in August 2009, is sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the National Institutes of Health.
People who qualify to participate in the study are H.I.V.-negative men, between the ages of 18 and 50, who have had sex with another man.
Although NIAID originally planned to enroll 1,350 participants, Jacobs explained that the study goal’s total has since expanded to 2,500. He said that, as of October — after more than three years of recruitment in a dozen cities — the effort has only gained around 2,200 participants.
And while one might assume that the level of involvement and overall interest in HVTN-505 within New York’s gay community would not be proportionately low per capita when compared with cities like Birmingham, Ala., and Nashville, Tenn., Jacobs asserted that it has been.
“The lack of response from our community has been the biggest obstacle so far,” he said.
While he couldn’t disclose the number of people who have participated in the study at Project ACHIEVE to date, Jacobs pointed out that San Francisco and Orlando have been leading heavily in recruitment versus other cities, and that New York has gotten an overall response somewhere between “average and relatively good” when compared with the other nine cities involved.
Jacobs, who often goes to gay bars and nightclubs throughout the city to speak directly with men and inform them about the vaccine study, said that he believes the problem is primarily a cultural one.
“New York is more of a ‘me’ town than a ‘we’ town,” he said. “Most people just say no to participating without taking the time to learn about it, because if the disease isn’t already directly affecting them personally, they’re not interested.”
While Jacobs added that the overall lack of interest thus far has been “disheartening,” he remains optimistic about recruiting new participants and finally reaching the national goal of 2,500. He also acknowledged that, of course, some New Yorkers have already made a positive impact by joining HVTN-505 or other similar studies.
In addition, Jacobs said that he himself participated in an H.I.V. vaccine study in 2006 and 2007, mainly because he lost many friends to AIDS during the ’90s.
“It felt really meaningful to be a part of that trial,” he said.
HVTN-505 is a Phase 2 study, meaning that the vaccine regimen being investigated already passed an initial study to determine its safety for use. Phase 2 studies, according to NIAID, are focused mainly on determining the efficacy of the drug being tested.
Although the vaccine regimen being tested in this study is not actually expected to fully prevent H.I.V. infection, researchers believe it could make a scientific breakthrough by effectively reducing the presence of the virus in people who eventually become H.I.V. positive, according to the NIAID Web site.
The government agency also stated the vaccine regimen does not contain any living or dead strain of H.I.V., and thus cannot inadvertently infect any participants in the vaccine study.
To learn how to enroll in the HVTN-505 study at Project ACHIEVE, call 212-388-0008. To learn how to enroll at Columbia University Medical Center, call 212-305-2201. Anyone interested in learning more about the study can also visit nycvaccine.org.