Debunking Myths About HIV Vaccine

In honor of World AIDS Day tomorrow, SRxA’s Word on Health wants to share with our readers the top 10 myths about HIV vaccine research.

With the help of our friends at the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN), we’d like to set the record straight.

Myth # 1: HIV vaccines can give people HIV

HIV vaccines do not contain HIV and therefore a person cannot get HIV from the vaccine. Some vaccines, like those for typhoid or polio, may contain a weak form of the virus they are protecting against, but this is not the case for HIV vaccines. Think of it like a photocopy: It might look similar, but it isn’t the original. In the past 25 years more than 30,000 volunteers have taken part in HIV vaccine studies worldwide, and no one has been infected with HIV by any of the vaccines tested.

Myth #2: An HIV vaccine already exists

There is no licensed vaccine against HIV or AIDS, but scientists are getting closer than ever before.  In 2009, a large-scale vaccine study conducted in Thailand showed that a vaccine combination could prevent about 32% of new infections. Researchers around the world continue to search for an HIV vaccine that is even more effective. Leading this effort is the HVTN.

Myth #3: Joining an HIV-vaccine study is like being a guinea pig

Unlike guinea pigs, people can say yes or no to participating in research. All study volunteers undergo informed consent to ensure that they fully understand all of the risks and benefits of being in a study and those volunteers are reminded that they may leave a study at any time without losing rights or benefits.

Myth #4: A person must be HIV positive to be in an HIV vaccine study

Not so. While some research groups are conducting studies of vaccines that might be used in people who are already infected with HIV, the vaccines being tested by the HVTN are preventive vaccines which are tested on volunteers who are not infected with HIV.

Myth #5: Vaccine researchers want study participants to practice unsafe behaviors so they can see whether the vaccine really works

Not true. The safety of study participants is the No. 1 priority of HIV vaccine researchers and study site staff. Trained counselors work with study participants to help them develop an individual plan on how to keep from contracting HIV.

Myth #6: Now that there are pills that can prevent HIV infection, an HIV vaccine is no longer necessary

Although high risk, HIV-negative people can take antiretroviral medication to lower their chances of becoming infected if they are exposed to the virus, it has not yet been recommended for widespread use. This type of therapy known as  PreExposure Prophylaxis is unlikely to be an option for everyone because the pills are expensive, are not always covered by insurance, may cause side effects, and not everyone has access to them.

Myth #7: An HIV vaccine is unnecessary because AIDS is easily treated and controlled

While treatment for AIDS has dramatically improved over the last 30 years, it is no substitute for prevention.

Myth #8: The search for an HIV vaccine has been going on for a long time and it’s just not possible to find one that works

The science of HIV-vaccine development is challenging, but scientific understanding continues to improve all the time. Science has come a long way in the 30 years since AIDS was discovered. In comparing preventive HIV vaccine work to other vaccine development, the time it has taken is not so surprising; the polio vaccine took 47 years to develop.

Myth #9: Vaccines cause autism and just aren’t safe

This is not true. Numerous studies in the past decade have found this claim to be false. The British doctor who originally published the finding about vaccines and autism has since been found to have falsified his data.

Myth #10: People who aren’t at risk don’t need an HIV vaccine

Not true either. A person may not currently be at risk for HIV, but life situations can change along with disease risk.

So now you know!  By correcting these myths we hope in some small way to be able to help in the mission of this World AIDS campaign – bringing the number of AIDS deaths to zero.

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