Researchers announced earlier this month that a new discovery may pave the way to developing a viable AIDS vaccine. Scientists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) discovered two potent human antibodies that can stop more than 90 percent of HIV strains from infecting human cells. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the NIH, told the press, ''The discovery of these exceptionally broadly neutralizing antibodies to HIV and the structural analysis that explains how they work are exciting advances that will accelerate our efforts to find a preventive HIV vaccine for global use.''
While experts are cautiously optimistic about these developments — believing that this is only the beginning — most agree that this is promising news. Many vaccine attempts have failed in the past, and for the first time, there is actually some proof that this could lead to something real.
This is also good news for black America. Despite exhaustive HIV-prevention methods and campaigns, we still bear the brunt of this epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans make up 13 percent of the total U.S. population but account for nearly half of the 1.1 million HIV/AIDS cases in this country. And these rates are only getting worse; new HIV infections are steadily on the rise.
An AIDS immunization could potentially end the epidemic dead in its tracks.
But before we pop open the champagne, we must address that pesky elephant in the room. Before a vaccine can be FDA-approved and then distributed, it must go through a series of rigorous clinical trials that could last up to 10 years. And in that time, researchers would need a robust number of African Americans to participate in order to evaluate how the vaccine works for people of different races. Without our crucial involvement, it would be almost impossible for this vaccine to get approved.
But given our atrocious track record with the medical community, coupled with the polarizing stigma around HIV, how many black people are going to be eager to play guinea pig for the sake of the greater good?
Not that many.
Better yet, let's just say that an adequate number of us were to participate in these trials, and a series of vaccines were green-lit for mass consumption. Would we show up in droves at our local hospitals, clinics and health departments, begging to be injected with it?
One word: Tuskegee.
And unfortunately, complete disregard for black people's lives didn't stop or start with those experiments. In her 2007 book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present, Harriet Washington brilliantly chronicles how, for centuries, black people were poked, prodded and sterilized and underwent surgery against their will — all in the name of ''science.'' And while these gross acts of inhumanity occurred some time ago, the fear spawned from them hasn't subsided. Why should it? We are still being mistreated. In 2008 The New England Journal of Medicine published a report citing that prejudice and stereotyping play a significant role in how white health-care providers deal with African-American patients.
Our intense skepticism is not a well-guarded secret. The medical community knows that their past and current behavior plays a factor in why so many of us are disinterested in their research. Over the years, dozens of studies have been conducted, and regardless of the issue — cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS or diabetes — our indifference mainly points to our tumultuous past. (And let's not forget what happened to Henrietta Lacks and her cancer cells.)
Even I am not exempt. Despite being very health literate, having faith in my own doctors and having interviewed dozens of trusted black AIDS experts who have assured me that clinical trials are relatively safe, the thought of being in one makes me uneasy. No matter how hard I try, I can't drown out that instinctual voice in the back of my head that says, ''Girl, please. Not in a million years.''
Unfortunately, for many, this mistrust isn't confined to feeling queasy about a clinical trial. We all know people who won't take lifesaving medicine or who ignore severe symptoms for months rather than get them checked out in a timely fashion. And we have all heard someone say that AIDS is a government plot created to kill black people and that there is a cure, but only Magic has it.
These attitudes, which are aimed to ''protect'' us, really only harm us. Statistically, African Americans are more likely to disproportionately suffer from a range of health issues, less likely to access health-related information or get screened for diseases. And while systematic poverty and a fragmented health-care system can be blamed, some of that is our own doing.
At some point, we have to accept that in order for us to be well, we have to embrace science.
Greed is no conspiracy theory; it's the American way. And that's what really scares us.
So I have this to say to the medical-pharmaceutical industry: To gain our trust, vow that our lives trump a gigantic profit. Swear that you will end any trial if the participants' health is being jeopardized. Promise us that you won't do what GlaxoSmithKline was accused of doing: hiding ''unsavory'' data and documents from the FDA in order to get its diabetes drug Avandia approved and sold to an unsuspecting public.
Also remember to work smarter and better with African-American organizations, leaders and AIDS groups in order to educate the community. Listen to them and learn from past mistakes made in the recruitment of blacks for HIV-vaccine trials. Also, make sure that these public-health lessons are peer-led initiatives and incorporate respectful and culturally competent information. No more sending condescending ''token'' black employees into safe havens like Harlem's Schomburg Center to speak to the community.
Most important, remember that sometimes the biggest teachable moments happen in the doctor's office. Physicians: It's not a secret that many of you are underpaid and overworked. But for those who rush in and out of the examination room, barely looking patients in their eyes; get frustrated because folks are asking ''too many'' questions; or quickly scribble down a prescription without explanation, you are part of the problem.
Because providing inadequate and inferior health care only perpetuates the cycle of distrust.
In the end, reconciling our past with our hopes for an epidemic-free future is no small feat. But hopefully, when an AIDS vaccine is ready — at both the clinical and distribution stages — that much-needed work will be long under way. Because when it's time for me to roll up my sleeves and do my part for humanity, the only real fear I want to face is the one I have for needles.