By Caleph B. Wilson
Since, my days as a graduate student, family, friends and strangers have asked me about the validity of biomedical science reports in the media. Many articles and blogs are accurate; however, sometimes inaccurate information is put forward. In those instances, I attempt to help the questioner understand why the information is incorrect.
Below is a case of a website getting the information HORRIBLY WRONG!
A Facebook friend shared a blog post that stated that a National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded HIV vaccine trial “gave 41 people HIV.” As expected a post like that got my attention immediately! So, my first question was: Why haven’t I heard of this before? It seems like major news because of the safety concern. This would have been alarming news in the HIV research community.
So, as usual I navigated to the shared webpage and began to read. After reading the post, I did a Google search for the name of the trial: HVTN 500. The sixth post was a press release from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), the NIH branch that funded the study.
While reading the NIAID press release, I was wondering when I would get to the part discussing the new HIV infections. The information was in the fourth paragraph. This is what I said:
“Overall in the study from the day of enrollment through the month 24 study visit, a total of 41 cases of HIV infection occurred in the volunteers who received the investigational vaccine regimen and 30 cases of HIV infection occurred among the placebo vaccine recipients.”
This is what the above quoted text means. Yes, participants that receive placebo or the vaccine contracted HIV. However, the sentence does not indicate that the vaccine or placebo was the source of the new HIV infections. What the press release is pointing out is that the vaccine was not effective enough to justify continuing to spend tax payer dollars on it. Simply put, scientist and physicians determined that a careful public health research project did not work and decided to stop it. This is how science works.
Given the misleading information in the website posted by my Facebook friend, I decided to respond to the post and point out why it was dangerous misinformation. This is how I determined that the information on the website was incorrect:
1.) The website did not list or link to the group that did the study
This is a major red flag. Anytime a website cannot point me to facts, I get concerned. As a scientist, I always challenge myself to read the sources. Creditable information will invites critical review. This webpage was making me work to find information rather than pointing me to it. Especially given, that it claimed that a federally funded clinical trial was responsible for spreading HIV, I wanted to read this information.
2.) No other media or science outlets came to the same conclusion as the shared webpage
News like this warrants independent verification from multiple sources. It is hard to believe that media outlets would not consider it to be major news that an NIH sponsored trial was spreading HIV. If this would true, it would be inescapable.
3.) Carefully reading the both the NIH press release, the blog post and linked information in each
Anyone can read the available information and make a conclusion based on what is there. It only requires a working knowledge of what is presented. In this case, there is a major discrepancy between what the NIAID has to say and what the website stated about the HIV vaccine trial. I invite you to read the press release, blog post and sited sources to reach your own conclusion. Also, search the internet, PubMed and other sources. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section of this post.
Above all, I am pointing out that each of us has a responsibility to insure that we effectively evaluate information that we consume. Not doing so, will result in spread information that may not be accurate. The danger in the case above is that success in combating HIV requires informed volunteers. Mis-information or inaccurate media reports may prevent advancements in battling HIV.