Kevin Trimell Jones’ job may be complicated, often frustrating, and entirely consuming, but his goal is simple and clear. “I’m trying to help end HIV,” says the research coordinator and ethnographer (one who analyzes human culture/society) at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s HIV/AIDS Prevention Research Division.
The 35-year-old is part of what he calls a “small army” of professionals at universities and hospitals across the city working to eradicate a disease that, despite advances in medicine designed to combat it, continues to plague America more than three decades after its discovery.
Though he’s not hovering over test tubes in a lab, Jones performs another vital function: locating and encouraging people to participate in Penn Medicine research studies aimed at developing both behavioral and biomedical strategies for preventing HIV. At the moment, Jones is trying to recruit individuals for an upcoming HIV vaccine trial study happening at Penn and a handful of other sites around the country. He’s especially reaching out to gay black men in Philadelphia—a community that continues to be particularly ravaged by the disease—with the aim of ensuring that any potential vaccine would be effective for all racial and ethnic groups.
“We’ve known since the early days that the rates were disproportionately affecting black people,” says Jones. “We’re still seeing young people becoming infected, particularly young black males, and there’s not enough people that care about this issue.”
The numbers are sobering and alarming. Philadelphia’s rate of new HIV infection is nearly five times the national average. According to the most recent figures issued by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (including cases reported through June 2011), 63 percent of the approximately 19,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the city are black—comparatively, 20 percent are white and 14 percent Hispanic. About 1 in every 50 African-Americans in Philadelphia is HIV-positive.
Medical breakthroughs have altered the HIV landscape to where a diagnosis isn’t necessarily a swift death sentence. But, as Jones notes, residents of poverty-stricken black neighborhoods often can’t afford those pricey medications. And there are scant resources for HIV education and prevention campaigns in those areas.
Growing up black and gay in Saginaw, Mich., then in Detroit, Jones was quick to recognize such grim realities in his own backyard. By the time he got to the University of Michigan, he was focused on social-justice issues through lenses of race, gender and sexuality, and during his graduate studies at the University of Massachusetts he researched identity development among gay black men while concurrently doing volunteer HIV prevention work.
Following school, and looking for an area more multicultural than Amherst to live and study, Jones relocated to Philly in 2003 and instantly fell in love with the city and its vibrant gay community. “It wasn’t until I came here that I really embraced a gay identity,” he says, adding that “the ethnographer in me also had an interest in observing a really diverse city and figuring out people’s patterns and behavior.”
After joining Penn Medicine in 2004, Jones grew adept at finding HIV research subjects throughout the city, and not just in gay-centric venues. For one study, he spent considerable time and risk going into abandoned buildings in North Philly to track down intravenous drug users who might be willing to participate. “Research isn’t something where you can automatically expect people are gonna come to it for the good that it does for society,” says Jones. “You have to seek people out. It helps to be an ethnographer, to know how to observe people and environments to know the right times to talk to people and how to talk to people.”
Convincing people to sign up for HIV-research studies, particularly vaccine trials, can be tricky. Especially in the black community, where thoughts frequently turn to the disgraceful 40-year Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which the U.S. government deceived hundreds of poor black men in Alabama into believing they were being treated with medication. Or the abusive medical experiments conducted on inmates at Holmesburg Prison in Northeast Philly from the 1950s to the 1970s. “Many of those [former inmates] and their families still live in the area, so people are very aware of what happened,” Jones says. “It’s important in my job to build relationships and talk about the systems we’ve put in place that provide for peoples’ safety.” He adds that it’s often difficult to dispel the myth that experimental HIV vaccines contain the HIV virus.
But surmounting such hurdles is crucial. “The reason we have the HIV meds we have now is because many people rolled up their sleeves and participated in clinical trials,” says Jones. “There were people taking a chance and participating in something that even though they might not see the benefit of it, future generations would. If I can play some small role in that—in eradicating this epidemic—that’s what I need to do.”
For more information about Penn Medicine’s current HIV vaccine trials, go to med.upenn.edu/hiv or call 866.HIV.PENN.