Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Guinea Pigs...

I used to own a couple of guinea pigs when I was in college. Attila and Cleopatra. They were horny (Cleo was a screamer, if you know what I mean) and shit a lot. I never wanted to use them to test shit on them. I am not quite sure how guinea pigs, or rabbits for that matter, became the animal of choice to test lip gloss and eyeliner on. Could you tell if a guinea pig was wearing lip gloss?

In any event, I was scanning the radio stations tonight on the drive home and heard an advertisement -- sponsored by the National Institute of Health -- seeking volunteers for the HIV/AIDS vaccine project on two separate R&B (read black) radio stations. I haven't heard any similar talk radio or pop stations or any other stations whose audience is more diverse or predominantly white.

The testing AIDS vaccines on people of color has been in issue that has torn scientists. The matter is not so much whether the vaccine actually causes AIDS in its subjects -- it doesn't. The issue is whether the community that you are using to test the vaccine is getting exploited in some way for the ultimate benefit of others. There was a fascinating article by Michael Specter in the New Yorker last year exploring the ethics of targeting Africans to test the efficacy of a vaccine.

Scientists argue that the best way to test a vaccine's efficacy is to target groups with high infection rates in any trials. That explains why the NIH may be targeting the African American community, which has unfortunately developed an alarming infection rate particularly among African-American women recently.

According to Specter, some of the more vexing ethical issues in testing the vaccine in Africa were: "Will people used as subjects benefit from the research? (Africans served as essential participants in trials for the principal vaccine now used against hepatitis B; yet when the vaccine finally arrived they could not afford it.) Should volunteers get better medical care than other people in their villages? Should they get better treatment than other members of their own families? Are we exploiting research subjects if we don't promise special treatment? Are we bribing them if we do?"

Similar questions apply to the targeting of the African-American community here to serve as the subjects of AIDS vaccine trials. The Government has neglected the health needs of the African-American community for as long as this country has existed. However, when it comes to exploiting the health problems that harm the African-American community in particular, the Government does not hesitate.

For example, President Bush does not talk about increasing the life expectancy of African-American males. Instead, he uses the shorter life expectancy of African-American males as the basis for a perverse argument to garner support among African Americans for his unnecessary Social Security reform. His message is basically: you all die earlier, so you definitely don't want a program that starts paying benefits when you are 67, you need something different -- how fucking cynical.

Simlarly, it is my understanding that federal government funding to help address the AIDS crisis in the African-American community -- or African communities worldwide -- is far short of what is necessary. Yet, the Government has plenty of time to flood the airwaves of African-American radio stations begging for AIDS vaccine guinea pigs. Hopefully, the level of spending of treatment and health education efforts in predominantly African-American communities will be ultimately proportionate to the money spent on low-probability preventive programs.


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