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Promising New Research on Preventive and Therapeutic HIV Vaccines

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By Rod McCullom –

May 18, 2011, was HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, a time to remind ourselves of the worldwide effort to create vaccines to help prevent HIV infection and to boost the immune systems of people already infected with the virus.

The past three weeks have seen a flurry of activity around new and exciting potential HIV-vaccine concepts.

In Kenya, clinical trials began on two promising new designs for preventive HIV vaccines. In South Africa, researchers launched clinical trials on a therapeutic vaccine intended to strengthen the immune systems of people living with HIV/AIDS. And just last week, scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine announced their biggest research gift ever: $23.4 million to continue the university's decades-long work on an HIV/AIDS vaccine from a consortium led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"I don't think anyone can argue that this has been an exciting time," says Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC, originally the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, the 16-year-old New York City-based group that advocates for the development of an AIDS vaccine and biomedical prevention.

Prevention technologies have been in the news lately--from the breakthrough microbicide research at the 2010 International AIDS Conference to the recent data on the potential of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to help protect gay and bisexual men. And, all have potentially serious implications for African Americans, who represent only 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for 45 percent of new HIV infections.

Preventive Vaccine Trials

"There are three major areas of work right now around vaccines," Warren explains. "On the one hand, there is a lot of work focused on doing better than what we did in Thailand, how to modify that vaccine candidate and improve upon it."

Announced in September 2009, the U.S.-funded "Thai Prime-Boost" trial--the world's largest, with 16,000 volunteers--combined two previously unsuccessful vaccines. But, while a medical milestone (the vaccine reduced new infections by almost a third), it was not effective enough.

"The second major area of work is other new vaccine concepts. The trial in Kenya is one example," says Warren of the research being conducted in collaboration with the (IAVI). The candidate vaccine affects both antibodies and cellular immune response and has been described as the most advanced AIDS vaccine design" likely to succeed.

Novel HIV-Vaccine Candidate?

Another major effort includes the early research dollars that the National Institutes of Health and the Gates Foundation are providing to the University of Maryland for entirely new vaccine concepts based on other scientific ideas.

The funding was awarded to the university's Institute of Human Virology, headed by the renowned Robert C. Gallo, M.D., who helped discover the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS and later developed the HIV blood test. If effective, the novel HIV-vaccine candidate would neutralize many different strains of HIV." Previous vaccine candidates responded only to a single type of the disease.

"With the possibility of an HIV vaccine that could prevent many different strains of this disease, we could indeed be changing the world," says E. Albert Reece, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. Reece, who is African American, describes the new vaccine candidate's potential as "extraordinary."

New Proteins

The third major focus of research "has gotten a lot of people excited," says AVAC's Warren. "That's been the discovery of more than a dozen new neutralizing antibodies. For almost 30 years of the epidemic, there were only a few known antibodies. . . . Scientists broke the code and [can] find additional areas of the HIV virus that might be better targets." Neutralizing antibodies defend cells from an infection by working to inhibit, or "neutralize," the pathogen's effect.

One recent example: Scientists in Oregon recently announced an experimental vaccine that helped monkeys with a form of HIV control their infections for more than a year. This is the first time that a vaccine candidate has been able to "fully control the virus in some animals," Wayne C. Koff, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at the IAVI, told Reuters.

Some Progress on Therapeutic Vaccines

Positive developments have also occurred on therapeutic vaccines, intended to one day boost the ravaged immune systems of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Clinical trials on a vaccine candidate called TAT were announced at the University of Limpopo in South Africa. Participants continue to take their antiretroviral medications (ARVs) as researchers investigate "what health restorative qualities the candidate vaccine has that ARVs do not possess," reports The Sowetan.

This approach appears particularly promising for African and Caribbean nations, where many patients do not have easy access to lifesaving ARVs. An estimated 5.7 million HIV-positive people live in South Africa alone--more than in any other nation.

But, the stateside HIV/AIDS-treatment-and-research community is divided on the benefits of funding therapeutic strategies because many people are on ARV therapy, which is largely effective. Stephen Bailous, vice president of community affairs at the National Association of People With AIDS, defends the approach. “We need to have hopes, and some of the therapeutic vaccines look really promising," Bailous is quoted by Scientific American.

Recruiting Blacks for Vaccine Trials

"In the long term, the preventive vaccine is the goal standard," says Ben Perkins, associate director of community education at the Boston-based Fenway Institute.

"It's great that the PrEP study has shown that uninfected men who have sex with men can take medication and decrease their likelihood of HIV acquisition," he says. "But, that is medication you have to take on a daily basis under medical supervision. A vaccine is just a couple of shots; maybe later you get a booster. That's it."

In addition to doing community outreach and working with AIDS-service organizations around the country, "my job is also to talk about HIV-vaccine research and try to get people of color involved in trials," Perkins says. A participant in the STEP-study phase 2 clinical vaccine trials, Perkins recently uploaded a video to YouTube discussing the importance of Black involvement.

"My childhood best friend died from AIDS-related complications in 1991 at 27 years old," Perkins says. "In addition, once I later came out as a gay man, my first partner had an AIDS diagnosis. It's impacted me personally, and it's important to do my part to help find a vaccine. . . . We were able to eradicate smallpox through vaccine several generations ago. I'd like to see the same thing happen with HIV."

Blacks and Latinos are generally underrepresented in clinical research. There has been a nationwide, sustained effort by the NIH-funded HIV Vaccine Trials Network's Legacy Project to recruit more Black and Latino participants. "In the United States, African Americans are at greatest risk for HIV. Not to acknowledge that, or not to design our research around that, means we are reinforcing the very obstacles that the virus preys upon," AVAC's Warren reminds us. "Whether it be for a vaccine, for a therapy, microbicide or PrEP, we need to make sure that diverse populations are enrolling in the clinical trials.

"But we will find a vaccine," Warren adds. "There is no doubt, given all the recent advances."

Rod McCullom, a writer and television news producer, blogs on Black gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender news and pop culture at rod20.com.

Rihanna 'Man Down' Music Video Causes Uproar

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Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American newspaper –

Pop star Rihanna’s new video for the song “Man Down” created quite a stir after it debuted on BET‘s “106 & Park” on May 31. The violent images in the video have caused many to ask for it to be banned.

In the video, Rihanna portrays a victim of sexual assault that gets retribution on her attacker by gunning him down in a train station. Members of the Parents Television Council (PTC) complained that the singer, a victim of a highly publicized domestic assault, should approach domestic violence differently.

“Rihanna’s personal story and status as a celebrity superstar provided a golden opportunity for the singer to send an important message to female victims of rape and domestic violence,” Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the PTC, said in a statement. “Instead of telling victims they should seek help, Rihanna released a music video that gives retaliation in the form of premeditated murder the imprimatur of acceptability.”

Rihanna used a Twitter posting to defend herself on June 2. She says she’s an artist and her expression should not be muted.

“I'm a 23 year old rock star with NO KIDS! What's up with everybody wantin me to be a parent? I'm just a girl, I can only be your/our voice!” she said on Thursday. “Cuz we all know how difficult/embarrassing it is to communicate touchy subject matters to anyone especially our parents! And this is why! Cuz we turn the other cheek! U can't hide your kids from society, or they'll never learn how to adapt! This is the REAL WORLD!

“The music industry isn't exactly Parents R Us! We have the freedom to make art, LET US! It's your job to make sure they don't turn out like US,” she continued.

BET defended it’s airing of the video, saying it fit within the networks guidelines for decency. However, Henson took offense with the network as well.

“BET’s justification for airing Rihanna’s video is beyond inadequate,” Henson said. “If BET is serious that the video ‘complied’ with its standards, we would like to know just what those ‘standards’ are. In the interest of full disclosure, we call on BET to issue a public explanation of its programming guidelines and urge MTV to keep the video off its network.”

After 30 Years, AIDS Has Become a 'Black Disease'

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By George E. Curry, Special to the NNPA from thedefendersonline.com –

When AIDS was first detected 30 years ago, it was considered a White, gay man’s disease. In fact, it was known as GRID – gay-related immune deficiency.

Although African-Americans represent only 12.6 percent of the U.S. population, Blacks now represent almost half of all new HIV infections and nearly 50 percent of AIDS-related deaths. What was once thought to be a “gay” disease has clearly become a “Black” disease.

Sunday will mark the 30th anniversary of the first public identification of AIDS. To commemorate the anniversary, the Black AIDS Institute released a report on Thursday titled, 30 Years is Enuf: The History of the AIDS Epidemic in Black America.

The report is a comprehensive review of the past three decades, chronicling missed opportunities, failed government actions, a medical community that was slow to react, African-Americans who underestimated the scope of the disease in their community and dedicated community activists forcing health officials to tackle what would later become known as AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), the final stage of HIV.

“From the epidemic’s earliest days, it was apparent that Black Americans were disproportionately affected by the epidemic,” Phill Wilson, founder and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, wrote in the introduction to his organization’s report.

“Yet, the epidemic in its early years was consistently portrayed as a problem for white gay men. Neither our national leaders, nor Black America itself, responded as they should have to the clear signs of an emerging health crisis among Black people.”

Initially, medical experts were baffled by the new disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in its June 5, 1981 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR): “In the period October 1980- May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsyconfirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California. Two of the patients died. All five had laboratory-confirmed previous or current cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection and candida mucosal infection.”

In its editorial note, the CDC observed: “Pneumocystis pneumonia in the United States is almost exclusively limited to severely immunosuppressed patients. The occurrence of Pneumocystosis in these 5 previously healthy individuals without clinically apparent underlying immunodeficiency is unusual. The fact that these patients were all homosexuals suggests an association between some aspect of a homosexual lifestyle or disease acquired through sexual contact and Pneumocystis pneumonia in this population.”

It would take another three years to identify HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Epidemiologists determined that HIV could be transmitted by men having sex with men, heterosexual couples, from infected women to their newborns, blood transfusions, and through contaminated needles. An estimated 1.1 million people live with HIV/AIDS today, including 500,000 African-Americans.

Although early attention was understandably focused on White, gay men, there was sufficient evidence – often ignored – that Blacks were disproportionately affected.

“One of the enduring myths of the epidemic is that AIDS almost exclusively affected white gay men in the U.S. during the early years,” the Black AIDS Institute report states. “In reality, AIDS had a disproportionate effect on Black America from the very beginning. Representing just 12% of the U.S. population, Black people accounted for 26% of all cases reported in 1981-1983.”

It continued, “Outside sub-Saharan Africa, only four countries have HIV prevalence as high as the conservative estimates of the HIV burden in Black America. Indeed, were Black America its own country, it would have the 16th largest number of people living with HIV, with levels of infection rivaling numerous countries in Africa.”

In the early years, there was widespread ignorance about the disease.

“Because health officials and journalists used the phrase ‘bodily fluids’ instead of specifying semen, blood and vaginal secretions, many people feared they could contract AIDS from toilet seats or drinking fountains,” wrote Lawrence K. Altman in the New York Times.

The first drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat HIV infection was AZT, or zidovudine. But a more effective class of antiretroviral drugs, called protease inhibitors, were developed in the mid-1990s.

Researchers discovered that by combining multiple classes of drugs, they could limit the viral replication process.

The combination treatment was called Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART).

“Black America has benefited from treatment breakthroughs but not to the same extent as whites,” the Black AIDS study observed.

“Indeed, evidence indicates that Black-white disparities in HIV-related medical outcomes have actually widened in the HAART era. The sub-optimal HIV outcomes experienced by Black Americans stem from a combination of late diagnosis of HIV, inadequate health access, discontinuity of care, treatment adherence challenges, and a higher prevalence of other serious co-morbidities.”

Over the years, public awareness increased in unexpected ways.

“The AIDS-related death of actor Rock Hudson in 1985 shocked the country and dramatically increased AIDS awareness,” the Black AIDS Institute report noted.

“A similar effect resulted from the AIDS diagnosis in 1988 of tennis great Arthur Ashe, one of only two men to win a Grand Slam tournament. Before his death in 1993, Ashe established a private foundation to fight AIDS.

“Public awareness of the AIDS crisis, especially in Black communities, underwent a sea change in 1991, when basketball great Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson announced that he had tested HIV-positive. After his announcement, HIV testing rates in Black communities skyrocketed, as many Black Americans awoke to the reality that AIDS was not only a problem for gay men.”

By then, however, AIDS had ravaged Black America. The proof is in the numbers.

Although African-Americans represent 12.6 percent of the U.S.

(13.6 percent when you include those who identify with more than one race), Blacks:

• Account for 45 percent of new HIV infections;

• Represent 46 percent of people living with HIV;

• Represent 48 percent of all new AIDS diagnoses and

• Account for 57 percent of all HIV-related deaths.

Figures for some groups are even more staggering. Black women, for example, account for 61 percent of the HIV infections among women, nearly 15 times larger than the rate for White women. Blacks aged 13-19 are only 17 percent of U.S. teenagers, they represent 68 percent of all new AIDS diagnoses among teens. According to a five-city survey, 46 percent of gay and bisexual men were infected with HIV, compared to 21 percent of White men and 17 percent of Hispanics.

The Black AIDS Institute made a series of recommendations to end the AIDS epidemic in Black America. Among them: make major investments of HIV education in Black communities, increase AIDS funding, eliminate HIV treatment waiting lists, introduce new prevention tools, undertake a major marketing campaign to promote HIV testing and treatment, and persuade every Black institution to implement an AIDS strategy.

Thanks to President Obama, the United States has put into place its first national AIDS strategy.

Its vision: “The United States will become a place where HIV infections are rare and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.”

According to the report, presidential leadership has been uneven over the past three decades. It assigned grades to recent presidents.

Ronald Reagan earned an F, George H.W. Bush received a C, Bill Clinton got a B, George W. Bush was awarded a C-, and Barack Obama received an incomplete.

Since June of 1981, 1.7 million people in the United States have been infected with HIV, including 600,000 who have died.

“As AIDS enters its fourth decade, there could be no more fitting tribute to the hundreds of thousands who have perished from this disease in the U.S. than to demonstrate that we have learned a lesson or two over the last 30 years,” Phill Wilson wrote in the Black AIDS Institute report. “In 2011, we have an extraordinary new opportunity to conquer AIDS. Only bold wise action will get us where we need to go.”

Bishop Eddie Long Settles – Instead of Fighting as Promised

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By Talibah Chikwendu, Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American newspapers –

The Atlanta pastor facing four civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual coercion settled the cases out-of-court, his church announced May 26, but the agreement leaves plenty of questions unanswered.

The lawsuits were filed in September 2010 against Bishop Eddie Long, the leader of the 25,000 + member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Four plaintiffs alleged that Long gave them and others attention, money, and gifts, before and after they reached the legal age of consent. Such actions allegedly involved engaging them in manipulation, oral sodomy and other sexual acts.

Addressing his congregation and the world regarding the charges approximately eight months ago, Long said that he had “never in my life portrayed myself as a perfect man. But I am not the man that's being portrayed on the television. That's not me.”

“I've been accused. I am under attack,” he said. “This thing, I'm gonna fight. ... I feel like David against Goliath. Butm I've got five rocks and I haven't thrown one yet.”

The settlement, which was reached after several months of mediation, doesn't look like the fight Long promised. It leaves all the questions from the lawsuits unanswered, including the basic question of his guilt or innocence, and generated new ones, including the monetary terms of the settlement, and whether Long or the church is paying the tab.

“After a series of discussions, all parties involved have decided to resolve the civil cases out of court. The decision was made to bring closure to this matter and to allow us to move forward with the plans God has for this ministry,” Art Franklin, spokesman for Long and New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, said in a statement. “As is usually the case when civil lawsuits resolve out of court, we cannot discuss any details regarding the resolution or the resolution process, as they are confidential. This resolution is the most reasonable road for everyone to travel.”

B.J Bernstein, the lawyer for plaintiffs Maurice Robinson, Anthony Flagg, Jamal Parris, and Spencer LeGrande, released a brief statement, saying only that “The matter has been resolved” and adding that neither she or her clients would make any further statements or give interviews now or in the future about the case.

“To me it looks like a cover up,” the Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds, a religious and political commentator, said. “It looks like he did what the Catholic Church has been doing for decades. I thought that [Long's initial statements] meant he would go to court and fight in court.”

Reynolds added that there is no way to be sure if Long was guilty or innocent. “If that's his addiction, more people will be violated ... But, who will know for sure now, because it's been covered up.”

The New Birth congregation rallied around Long, supporting his call to fight and continue to move forward. And he assured them that he would remain their pastor, saying, “I’ve been called to be your shepherd and as long as you receive me as your shepherd, I'll be your shepherd.”

But without a clear resolution of Long’s guilt or innocence, or the cost of the settlements to the church, many are wondering what impact this will have on Long's ability to be effective as a leader.

“I think they'll go right on with him,” Reynolds said. “People have a special relationship with their preacher and they are going to believe Eddie Long and things will go on as usual.”

Flawed Exam Cost Blacks More Than City Jobs in Chicago

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By Wendell Hutson, Special to the NNPA from the Chicago Crusader –

Had Arthur Lewis Jr. been hired after taking a 1995 entrance exam to be a Chicago firefighter he could have been promoted three times by now. “I could have been a battalion chief. Who knows what my rank would be had I been given a fair chance to compete for what I consider is the greatest job in the world,” Lewis told the Crusader.

Gregory Boggs, a Black Chicago fireman who passed the 1995 exam, agreed. “That is an opportunity he will never get now. Those types of opportunities our forever lost at this late stage,” said Boggs, who is president of the African American Firefighters & Paramedics League of Chicago. “Promotions have come and gone and I doubt if they will come around again before these applicants retire.” There is a mandatory retirement age of 63 for firefighters and the maximum age to begin as a firefighter is 37, added Boggs, who estimates that most of the 6,000 Black applicants who took the 1995 exam are now over age 37.

Last week, the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Black applicants had not waited too long before filing a lawsuit against the city for discrimination. The discrimination suit was a result of how the city handled a 1995 firefighter’s entrance exam. In addition, the court ordered the city to hire 111 Black applicants who passed the 1995 exam, which will cost the city an estimated $30 million, according to Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department. Hoyle added that there was a good reason why the city never challenged the plaintiffs claim that they were discriminated against when a cutoff score was used to determine applicants.

“During the lengthy procedural history of this case, which dates back to the mid-1990s, the city raised a number of complex legal issues,” explained Hoyle. “We appealed the statute of limitations issue because we felt that it had larger implications for the city of Chicago (and other municipalities across the country) because we deal with employment disputes on a regular basis.” And while Lewis, 41, is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit, Lewis v. city of Chicago, more than 5,000 other Blacks also are potential plaintiffs, which Jousha Karsh, lead attorney for the plaintiffs; estimate could cost the city upwards of $100 million to settle.

“We are talking about applicants who were never considered for hiring,” he said. “And the 111 applicants the city must hire will more than likely be stigmatized by other firefighters, so we expect it to be ugly.” Many Black applicants the Crusader contacted who took the 1995 exam declined comment for fear that it might hurt their hiring chances. The 111 Black applicants will be determined using a lottery system, according to Hoyle.

And, once applicants are chosen they must still pass a criminal background check, medical screening, and successfully complete six months of training at the CFD academy. Felony convictions would not exclude applicants either, said Larry Langford, spokesman for the CFD. But for Lewis, a former college recruiter and now unemployed, money is not the key factor here. “My father is a retired Chicago fireman and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I am still interested in being a fireman and I hope this lawsuit finally gives me that opportunity,” he said. “Being a firefighter is a brotherhood unlike anything else. I grew up watching my dad work closely with other Black firemen and they were like family. They bonded all the time and remain close friends to this day.” He added that the outcome for the 60,000 Black applicants who took and passed the 1995 exam was a “grave injustice.” Competing for a spot within the predominately white CFD is not easy, said Ezra McCann, who retired from the CFD in 2006 as a captain.

“I worked for the Chicago Fire Department for 30 years and it was a ‘good old boys’ network then and it still remains today,” McCann said. “Had more Blacks been hired many Black families would be way ahead of the game when it comes to poverty. Racism still breeds within the CFD and Blacks should not be the only one suffering, he added. “White folks in this town are gainfully employed as city, state and Cook County employees. We are in a recession but white folks are not suffering as much as Blacks and they should,” added McCann.

The CFD is aware that its current employee roster does not reflect the Chicago population and has made a concerted effort to change that, said Langford. In 2010, the CFD employed 5,120 and 68.5 percent were white, 17.5 percent Black, and 12.3 percent Hispanic. At Crusader press time, the current ethnic statistics for the CFD were unavailable but Langford said they probably were not much different from last year.

The last entrance exam for the CFD was given in 2006 but results were unavailable at Crusader press time. But to avoid the same confusion, the 1995 exam created Hoyle said the city now uses a pass or fail grade method for applicants rather than a specific score it previously used. McCann said Black applicants who took the 1995 exam would join the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Saturday morning at the civil rights organization’s weekly, public forum at 930 E. 50th St. on the South Side.

He added that Blacks who took the 1995 exam and scored at least a 65 are encouraged to contact the African American Firefighters & Paramedics League of Chicago or the city’s Law Department to see if they are eligible to be included in the suit.

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