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Women in AIDS vaccine clinical trials: Making sure they’re comfortable participants

In the more than 20 years since it was first identified, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has changed. What was first described as an infection of gay men in developed nations has become a disease that increasingly affects women worldwide. Today, younger women are more likely to be infected than younger men. In sub-Saharan Africa women now make up more than 57% of the people infected with HIV, and 76% of people aged 15-24 infected with HIV.

Biological and social factors may increase women’s vulnerability to HIV/AIDS infection. Some studies have indicated that because of biological differences between the female and male genital tracts, women may become infected more readily than men do. But social issues are probably even more important in increasing women’s vulnerability to HIV infection, particularly young women’s. In many societies women have unequal power in sexual relations so they are often unable to negotiate condom use, may be forced into relationships with older men, and may be victims of domestic violence and rape. It is therefore essential that any effective AIDS vaccine protects women and girls, as well as men, from infection.

Test to know

The only way to know if a vaccine will work the same way in women and men is to test the vaccine in both. A sufficient number of women must be included in AIDS vaccine clinical trials so that if there is any difference in protection between men and women it will be obvious from the trial results. There are hints that vaccines against other diseases may work differently in women and men. A vaccine against herpes simplex virus-2 (which causes genital lesions) was 75% effective in preventing symptoms of genital herpes in women in a Phase III clinical trial, but it did not protect men at all. Additional studies are now taking place to see if this is a true effect or just a result of too few women in the trial. A vaccine against human papillomavirus (which can cause cervical cancer) is only being tested in women at this time (see Spotlight, August 2003.)

Importantly, for any AIDS vaccine to be licensed by governmental authorities there must be enough information on the immune responses of both sexes. Testing vaccine candidates in women as well as men will also improve the acceptability and accessibility of these products.

Problems facing recruitment

Studies in Africa of the prevalence of HIV within the population have more female participants than male. But AIDS vaccine clinical trials are not the same. In a prevalence study a healthcare worker simply takes a blood sample and then tests it for antibodies against HIV. AIDS vaccine trials administer the vaccine candidate and then study the volunteer’s immune responses over time. Just to be on the safe side, volunteers are asked not to be pregnant or breast-feeding during the trial. This is standard practice for most drug and vaccine clinical trials. Trial participants are also counseled to use barrier methods, such as condoms, to prevent getting HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.

Asking women not to become pregnant during a trial is a huge request for many. Avoiding pregnancy is not a decision that women in many cultures can make on their own. A woman’s ability to conceive a child and her role as a mother may be paramount and may be related to a woman’s value to her society and family—the decision may rest with her husband, other male family members, or the family as a whole. This is probably one of the biggest barriers to recruiting more women into AIDS vaccine trials.

In some cases women express concerns about the vaccine itself: is it safe for them personally and will it affect future pregnancies? They may also be concerned that participation in an AIDS vaccine trial might stigmatize them in their community. It may be impossible to keep such participation confidential, especially in rural villages and small communities where everyone knows everyone else.

Another major issue in many societies in convincing women to participate in an AIDS vaccine clinical trial is their lack of empowerment, which may mean they are not able to independently take such decisions. Their unequal relationship with men may extend outside the family and throughout the society, so a community elder may influence the decision to participate in a trial. And because a woman may not be viewed as an equal to a man within her society, she may find it difficult to question or disagree with the medical team conducting the trial, especially if the team is predominantly male. She may therefore not be able to give truly informed consent.

Poverty may be an added problem. In some cases, as occurs in developed countries like the US, poverty may require that a woman relocate to another area away from the vaccine trial site. In this case, she may now be too far away to contact the people conducting the trial or she may leave no forwarding address so that she cannot be contacted. In a developing country, her lower socioeconomic status could mean she is in a migratory job or that she cannot afford to lose her daily wages to attend the clinic. She may have the added responsibilities of childcare, care of elderly family members, or general household responsibilities that may make it difficult to keep clinic appointments. She may not be able to visit the trial site unless there is childcare available at the site.

Information collected during clinical trials is always confidential. But a woman may still fear that someone will find out her HIV status (which will be tested a number of times during the trial), infection with other sexually transmitted infections, and information on her sexual partners.

Creating a comfort zone

Women have been more than willing to participate in AIDS vaccine clinical trials in the US. Women who have a low risk of becoming infected with HIV, who may be in long-term, stable relationships and are not injecting drug users, join trials because they want to help other people. In both developing and developed countries, women at higher risk of becoming HIV infected do so for similar reasons but also because they appreciate the help with health problems and the counseling and advice on protecting themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

For women in developing countries or in any environment where healthcare is not optimal, participation in a clinical trial has advantages. Participants have access to better-trained physicians and better-quality counseling.

A unique strategy that has been successful in bringing women into AIDS vaccine clinical trials offers trial participation to women not infected with HIV whose partner is HIV infected. These are known as discordant couples. These couples usually have very close and supportive relationships and are willing to attend HIV testing and counseling together.

Treating participants well

In places where women are not treated as equals or where HIV infection carries a stigma, it is especially important that the women are treated as equals by the clinic staff. Gender sensitization training for clinic staff members can assist them in understanding the realities of women’s lives and creating a comfortable environment for women. Having female staff members may also help put them at ease.

The location and facilities of the clinic must be considered. It should be in a place that participants can easily get to and should make the trial participants comfortable. It should have areas for women and children and childcare should be available. Appointments should be offered at hours that are convenient for the trial participants.

Staff members should be alert to problems outside of HIV infection, such as whether a woman has been a victim of domestic violence or has other problems at home.

In some cases, making the woman feel important and cared for may require giving her a small stipend to cover her travel costs, or making food and drink available at the clinic.

Working with the community is very important to ensure cooperation. Community leaders should be kept informed from the very beginning so that there is full cooperation. Working with community groups—athletic teams, clubs, social groupings—may increase community participation.

Although 5-10,000 women have participated in AIDS vaccine trials throughout the world, in some places these trials are relatively new. With more social research on the factors that would encourage women to participate in these trials and as more trials progress, scientists will have a better idea of what to do to guarantee that women are well represented in AIDS vaccine trials. Encouraging women to participate will ensure the development and acceptability of a vaccine that will protect and be accessible to women as well as men.

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All articles written by contributing author Myrna Watanabe, PhD