National HIV Vaccine Awareness Day: Meet Jonathan
May 18 is HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, an annual observance designed to not only raise awareness about the need for an HIV vaccine but also to recognize and thank the people working behind the scenes to develop one: trial volunteers, community members, heath care providers, and scientists.
Jonathan Garcia is one of them. For the past three years Jonathan has given his time—not to mention his blood—to HIV vaccine research in three different studies run by Bridge HIV, a division of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “I believe in it, so I can’t not do it,” Jonathan explains. As a student preparing for nursing school and a volunteer at both San Francisco General Hospital and Maitri Hospice for people with HIV, Jonathan saw joining the trial as another way to give to his community.
A vaccine to prevent or cure HIV has long been pursued as the ultimate tool to end the epidemic, but development has been slow. To date only one trial, conducted with more than 16,000 participants in Thailand, has shown statistically significant reductions in HIV infections (roughly 31% overall), offering researchers valuable insight into the development of future vaccine candidates. Sadly, just three weeks ago, immunizations were halted in the HVTN 505 vaccine study when a review found the shots neither prevented HIV infection nor reduced the amount of HIV in the blood of those who did acquire the virus.
Although not a participant in the HVTN study, Jonathan sees each trial is an essential step toward finding a vaccine that works: “At the minimum, these studies provide data that are necessary to progress in finding a vaccine for HIV. Even for the study I was in, I didn’t necessarily feel like that vaccine was ‘the one,’ but I did feel like the study was necessary for accumulating data to find it.”
Admittedly, contributing to that bank of data wasn’t effortless; Jonathan remembers wondering how people with less flexible schedules could make it across town for regular study visits and time-consuming blood draws. “One time, they took 26 vials of blood,” he recalls. It also required him to conquer fears that the vaccine might actually infect him. “I was really scared at first, but I educated myself about it and learned about the vaccine, learned what it meant that they were going to give me a synthetic ‘piece’ of the virus,” Jonathan says.
Because he received the HIV-mimicking vaccine and not a placebo, Jonathan’s body produced antibodies against it—antibodies that subsequently showed up on his HIV tests in another study designed to track vaccine-induced seropositivity (VISP for short). “I was really scared of the false positive,” Jonathan admits, “but it just means that your body is responding to the vaccine in the way it should.” He completed the VISP study early this year, after multiple HIV tests to look for signs of actual infection as opposed to antibodies induced by the vaccine: “I tested false positive twice, and then the next four times I tested negative. So they released me back into the wild!”
Despite the anxieties and inconveniences, Jonathan found the study fascinating and has nothing but praise for the study team. “The staff at Bridge HIV is just amazing; the resources they gave me, the education they gave me, just everything,” he says. Participants in HIV-prevention trials receive free HIV testing, condoms, and counseling about safer sex practices—something Jonathan found unexpectedly valuable. “It really changed a lot about myself and my habits that I didn’t know needed to be changed—particularly, how to open up a dialog about HIV with a potential sex partner,” he recalls. “That was something I’d never really thought about.”
Addressing HIV—and his own identity as a gay man—really began for Jonathan when the South Carolina native moved to the Bay Area eleven years ago, after four years stationed in South Dakota with the Air Force. “I had such a hard time being gay in the military,” he recalls. “I was trying to come out to myself, but I didn’t have the environment to do so.” Upon leaving the Air Force, he hit the road and headed west: “I left South Dakota and drove 22 straight hours to get to San Francisco.”
Moving to San Francisco introduced him to a generation of gay men with first-hand experience of the early days of AIDS. “‘I’m lucky to be alive,’ or, ‘All my friends are gone, I’m one of the last ones,’” Jonathan recalls hearing. Their stories affected him deeply: “That’s when I started to really pay attention to the disease and decided to try and get involved in a more direct way and contribute to the community.”
Participating in vaccine research not only allowed him to give deeply to his community but also afforded him a unique perspective on the medical field—and his future role in it. “I definitely think this has given me a much better background, before I go into my field. I’m taking it into my career,” Jonathan muses. “My biggest hope is to try and remove some of the stigma around the disease,” he adds. “Too often the response to someone who has AIDS, in our society, is to back away. I’ve had more of a desire to get closer, to do the opposite of backing away from the disease.”
Where does Jonathan hope his medical career will take him? “I want to specialize in hospice care,” he says. “People who are HIV-positive and dying are the most in need in our society, because they’re the most shunned. Where I should be is where the need is the greatest.”
To learn more about HIV vaccine research—and what you can do to help advance it—check out these online resources.
- HIV Vaccine Awareness Day 2013 Advocacy Toolkit: A wealth of reader-friendly fact sheets, slide sets, and timelines for ongoing HIV vaccine trials, brought to you by AVAC.
- FAQs for Potential Volunteers in HIV Vaccine Research: Ten key questions about things to consider before joining a vaccine trial, from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. (Also, check out NIAID’s handy HIV vaccine glossary.)
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Interested in participating in a vaccine trial? Search the ClinicalTrials.gov database for one that might be right for you.