Volunteers key to success of Thai vaccine trials
By AMBIKA AHUJA and MICHAEL CASEY, APNONGTAPAN, Thailand — Nearly 16,000 Thais ignored the false rumors that they were being infected by the AIDS virus, and overcame their fears of becoming social outcasts to participate in the first HIV vaccine trials to show positive results.
September 28, 2009, 1:58 pm TWN
Many of the volunteers — an eclectic mix of housewives, fishermen, factory workers, laborers and prostitutes — had seen firsthand how the disease ravaged this region of plantations and industrial estates in southeast Thailand, part of the epidemic that kills millions worldwide each year.
"In the '80s, the coffin business was booming around here. It was one family after another," said Tanad Yomaha, a volunteer whose sister and brother-in-law died of AIDS. "The temple here had at least one cremation ceremony every night and people were in perpetual mourning."
Their dedication — 90 percent of the volunteers stuck with the trial for more than six years — paid off when American and Thai authorities announced Thursday that the experimental vaccine had been found in some measure to prevent infection with the AIDS virus, an unexpected result that many scientists thought would never be possible.
The vaccine was shown to cut the risk of HIV infection by more than 31 percent. While the vaccine did not meet the researchers' goal of 50 percent, it could still have a big impact. Every day, 7,500 people worldwide are newly infected with HIV; 2 million died of AIDS in 2007, the U.N. agency UNAIDS estimates.
Soon after the Thai trials started, Col. Jerome Kim, who helped lead the study for the U.S. Army, said volunteers heard neighbors say the vaccine contained HIV and that the U.S. Army — which sponsored the study with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — was using a vaccine too dangerous to test in the United States.
Some even complained they risked losing their girlfriends or jobs after word spread they were participating in the trials.
"I was scared I would become a guinea pig and that they would inject us with AIDS," said Saichon Booncharoen, a 36-year-old who later became a volunteer and helped recruit other participants.