An AIDS Vaccine, but Then What?
Over 30 million people around the world were living with HIV and AIDS as of 2008. The UN estimates that 2.5 million people were newly diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2007 alone. As the devastating global pandemic continues to exact a terrible human and economic toll, scientists are continuing to search for a vaccine that will prevent it from spreading further.
However, because the spread of AIDS is linked to normal human behaviour, efforts to prevent and control it come not only with their own biomedical challenges, but with social and cultural ones, too. It isn’t a case of just waiting for scientists to find a vaccine that works. Experimental vaccines must be safely and ethically tested. If they’re proven viable, they would still have to be distributed in a way that made them widely acceptable and accessible, and didn’t increase risk behaviours among vulnerable populations. Even in Canada there would be many challenges to successfully implementing an AIDS vaccine. In the developing world, however, poverty and lack of public health infrastructures would make it even more complicated.
Among the first researchers to address AIDS vaccine acceptability, Dr. Peter Newman, Canada Research Chair in Health and Social Justice, believes it is essential that the best biomedical science and best social science work together to support the quest for a safe and effective vaccine.
His research focuses both on preparing for clinical trials of AIDS vaccines and on how acceptable such a vaccine would be considered to be once it was developed. As part of his research, Newman will look at what have been called “local vaccination cultures” in Canada and the developing world, including local beliefs about health, medicine, and HIV/AIDS, and will identify what motivates people to participate, or keeps them from participating, in drug trials and vaccination programs.
Newman will also look at the potential impact of hypothetical vaccines. For example, if a successfully tested vaccine were 50 per cent effective, you would expect it to have an enormous impact on infection rates. But, asks Newman, would receiving it make people more likely to then engage in behaviours that put them at risk, thereby actually compromising the overall effectiveness of the vaccine?
Newman’s research will lead to best practices for community engagement in clinical trials and future AIDS vaccine dissemination, including HIV education and prevention programs for a post-vaccine world, helping make any potential vaccine even more effective.