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Stroger holds meeting about HIV vaccine
by Chasse Rehwickel
2009-10-01

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Ever since June, when the Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center rejected a proposed HIV vaccine drug trial from coming to their facilities, tensions between the Center and the Cook County Board President's office have been building toward a boiling point.

According to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, the CORE Center had not adequately tried to explain their reasons for rejecting the trial and that the Center had remained silent to his office on the issue ever since their actions in June.

"I am not a medical expert," stated Stroger. "But when the Center makes a decision like this I expect them to come to me and explain why this is wrong for them."

The trial in question was purposed by Atlanta-based drug company GeoVax. Their plan was to enlist volunteers from the Center to test the safety of their vaccine before going forward with effectiveness tests. The test would have been considered a "phase one trail," which meant the vaccine would be starting the beginning step of a multi-staged process set forth by FDA guidelines. A process all vaccines must undergo before they gain federal approval.

Stroger had personally co-signed a letter of acknowledgement along with Cook County Health and Hospital System's CEO William Foley and the CORE Center's President John Daley that detailed the formal receipt of GeoVax's proposal and, by his own admission, Stroger was perplexed by the Center's flat rejection of GeoVax's plan.

Several supporters for the GeoVax trial began to voice their opinions in August, including Chicago Pastor Larry Trotter who held a protest of the CORE Center's decision Aug. 16 that attracted many of his congregation to the issue.

In order to clarify the subject and possibly explain the importance of the purposed trial to the people of Cook County, Stroger scheduled a community meeting to be held at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, at 12 p.m. on August 25.

The meeting would be open to anyone concerned about the issue and would follow a question and answer format, where Stroger would explain his concerns and then field questions from the audience.

What may have been intended as a meeting to quell a rising level of tension regarding the rejected trial turned into a pressure-cooker when Stroger was delayed more than 45 minutes for the meeting.

"It was inexcusable," stated one attendee. "We were here on time, I can't see why he wouldn't be," stated another.

After a representative apologized for Stroger's tardiness and explained that the president would be arriving shortly, State Rep. Constance Howard, who had come in support of Stroger and the GeoVax trial, was allowed to give a brief statement before she left for another engagement.

Howard, referring to the trial, stated that the community "had to do this" and that "we must always believe we can find a cure [ for HIV/AIDS ] ."

Following Howard's urge to get behind the GeoVax proposal the room's tensions finally boiled over, with multiple attendees jumping out of their seats to question Howard's statement.

Marc Loveless, a coordinator for the Coalition for Justice and Respect, rose from his seat and said "many organizations [ combating HIV/AIDS ] had yet to get state funding" and that he "didn't appreciate being campaigned to."

Loveless was then asked to sit down. He replied by stating that he thought community members were allowed to ask questions.

Before Loveless was able to receive an answer, Stroger arrived, apologized for being late and confirmed that the audience would be able to ask questions after he had voiced his own concerns.

Stroger began by explaining he had come simply to understand why the CORE Center had rejected the purposed trial and that he did not appreciate the administrators' inability to contact him and explain their points.

Almost immediately following Stroger's statement, he was met with a sea of raised hands of concerned community members—many of them patients of the CORE Center—who wished to voice their opinions on the GeoVax proposal.

Most were worried that if patients went off their medications—a stipulation of the trial—their conditions might permanently worsen.

Stroger assured these attendees that the GeoVax trial would in no way be forced upon anyone, and that if he heard a good reason from an expert medical professional, he would reconsider his stance on the proposal.

As it turned out, a group of doctors from the CORE Center had come to the community meeting—and one of these doctors stood up to meet the president's request.

The doctor explained that the vaccine was designed to be therapeutic, and used only in conjunction with other treatments. Because of this, and because the trial would be testing only the safety of the vaccine, the CORE Center made the decision that the risk to its patients was not outweighed by any possible reward, she said.

The doctor also stated that, even though the trial would be asking only for volunteers, the CORE Center would worry that GeoVax's presence would create the idea that the facility was not doing everything in its power to help patients—a point she wanted to make clear was completely inaccurate, unproductive and possibly dangerous to the mission of the Center.

Stroger then thanked the CORE doctors for their statements and said that it was that kind of statement he wished CORE Center officials had given him initially.

The doctors then interrupted Stroger to explain that one month prior, Dr. Rothstein had met with Stroger's communications director regarding the CORE Center's reservations about the GeoVax trial. After Stroger's communications director confirmed the meeting did occur, the president stated that he had not talked to his director about this issue.

The meeting concluded after nearly another hour of statements from the community mostly denouncing the proposal as "not right for this area."

Even after a GeoVax investor explained the future positive gain if the test were permitted, citizens stated that, although they appreciated the company's work, Chicago's HIV/AIDS community was too vulnerable to risk such a test and that GeoVax should conduct its research elsewhere.

Stroger left the meeting stating that he was unhappy with how the issue had played out through the media but that he would discuss the CORE Center's concerns with the facility's staff and administrators so he could better understand how to proceed.

In spite of this claim, however, not everyone was satisfied with Stroger following the meeting.

"Right after the meeting I received a communication from someone identifying themselves as being from Stroger's campaign that stated Stroger was not done with this issue," Loveless stated. "I'm not really sure what it is but there is some issue, some fight behind this that we are not aware of. And, unfortunately, it is the community that is going to end up suffering."


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