FROM THE tsunami to Katrina to the Himalayan earthquake, the world has seen one natural catastrophe after another in the past year, bringing death and suffering to thousands of fellow human beings. Aside from donations to charities, most people have no way to participate in bringing relief to victims. But there is another, far worse ongoing disaster -- the AIDS pandemic -- which does offer individuals a role to play in conquering it: through participation in vaccine trials.
A vaccine to protect against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the Holy Grail of infectious disease scientists. Whatever limited progress the World Health Organization and the UN Program on AIDS can point to on this World AIDS Day in preventing and treating the disease, the pandemic can be expected to grow in intensity in India, China, Russia, and other populous countries that are still in the early stage of the infection. A successful vaccine against a virus like HIV that attacks the body's own disease-fighting system presents an immense challenge to science, but it would be the most effective way to keep this disease from doing to other nations what it has already done to sub-Saharan Africa.
This is where citizens can make an indispensable contribution. Each potential vaccine that comes out of a laboratory has to be tested. Boston is one of 13 vaccine-testing sites in the United States, all part of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network. Currently, dozens of local volunteers -- some from groups at high risk of HIV infection and some not -- are helping to test two vaccines, neither of which uses the actual HIV virus. More volunteers are needed.
Signs of efficacy can be detected by examining blood samples for immune response signals, but the ultimate test is whether vaccinated volunteers over time are less likely to become infected with HIV than volunteers who have received a placebo. In the process of enrolling volunteers, the staffers conducting the trials spend an average of 10 hours with each person, explaining the importance of avoiding unsafe sex or contaminated hypodermic needles, not least because the volunteers will not know whether they have received the vaccine or the placebo, and no one knows if even the vaccine will provide any protection.
For their trouble, volunteers receive a modest amount of money. Their real compensation is knowing that they helped in a small but important way to fight this scourge.