Wednesday, April 2, 2008


By Steve Villano

Scientists, infectious disease doctors and public health advocates were hit with a double-whammy over the past few weeks.

In the valiant quest for a vaccine to prevent the spread of AIDS, the most promising AIDS Vaccine candidate in years failed in two major clinical trials which the entire medical world was watching. Some of those receiving the vaccine in clinical trials conducted in Africa, may have become more likely to become infected with the HIV virus than those who did not.

It was, as HIV virus co-discoverer Dr. Robert Gallo said, "the equivalent of the Challenger disaster in AIDS research," but even that only represented one facet of the tragedy. Another damaging aspect of the dire development was that it reinforced an already powerful prejudice that exists within communities of color that HIV/AIDS was deliberately engineered to kill black people. It's an unfounded conspiracy theory--believed by large segments of the black community worldwide--that dates back to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments in the U.S, and the polio vaccine clinical trials done in Africa decades ago. In fact, in many mostly Muslim nations, polio has made a deadly resurgence, because many in those countries believe that the polio vaccine is nothing more than a Western plot to infect whole populations with AIDS. Consequently, there are enormous challenges ahead for not only the discovery of a viable AIDS vaccine, but for distributing vaccines that have already been developed for diseases that can be controlled or eliminated, like polio or measles.

That's why its so maddening that at almost the precise moment the grim news about the AIDS vaccine was being made public, a group of well-to-do women in San Diego, California--where a measles outbreak is occurring--are refusing to have their children vaccinated for basic childhood diseases, out of a completely unproven fear that such vaccines cause autism.

One of the San Diego mothers conceded that by not having her child vaccinated against measles--which kills 250,000 children a year in countries where the vaccine doesn't reach everyone--she knew she was putting other children at risk. Another acknowledged the existence of "measles parties," where uninfected children are brought by their parents and intentionally exposed to children with measles, so they can be "naturally" exposed to the disease.

The bitter irony here is that in a rich, fortunate place like San Diego, California, where citizens have access to some of the best health care in the country, and childhood vaccines are in abundant supply, an unfounded, not-medically supported myth is circulating and putting everyone's child at risk of being infected with a virus for which we have already discovered the vaccine.

Don't we have enough work to do on AIDS--in finding a viable vaccine, that could save millions of lives--to be subject to such know-nothing, anti-science nonsense that threatens the health of all of us? Perhaps the first vaccine we need to develop is the one which eradicates ignorance and fear.

1 comment:

Apple_Mark said...

If you think fears are unfounded I suggest you take a look at what Julie Gerberding the head of the CDC said on CNN.
She admits a subset of children will develop autistic like symptoms after being vaccinated.
"an unfounded, not-medically supported myth" I think she would disagree with you!

Mark A