Battling a deliberately-acquired infection to help find a cure

As the debate on how the government is planning to implement Controlled Human Infection Studies (CHIS), here’s a first-person account from a trial participant in the United States.

Updated - August 25, 2023 11:13 am IST

Published - August 25, 2023 10:59 am IST

Vaccines require widespread testing before they can be sanctioned for use. Image for representational purpose only.

Vaccines require widespread testing before they can be sanctioned for use. Image for representational purpose only. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

One afternoon in April 2022, in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., I found myself lying on the floor in front of a toilet. I needed to relieve myself — again — but I had exhausted all of my energy walking just a few meters to get there. I was the sickest I had ever been in my life, having contracted Shigellosis, which causes dysentery.

(For top health news of the day, subscribe to our newsletter Health Matters)

Even though I felt deathly ill, I felt no fear. I had volunteered for it, after all. 

A team of nurses soon came by and helped me stand up. They began administering intravenous fluids, and within a few hours, I had started taking antibiotics.

Jake Eberts. Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Jake Eberts. Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

I was a participant in a “controlled human infection study” (CHIS), also called a human challenge study. Researchers at the University of Maryland had recruited me and about 15 others to join this study to test a new vaccine that one day may hopefully prevent Shigellosis. 

We were given the experimental vaccine (or a placebo), and a few months later, spent about 11 days in a closed wing of a research facility, with medical checks at least twice a day and a medical team present at all hours. To ensure we did not spread the Shigella bacteria, we could not leave or have visitors.

A CHIS is a relatively quick and efficient way to assess if a vaccine might work, and they have been used for decades in research for dozens of diseases. In the case of the vaccine tested on me, if the results show it protected enough volunteers from severe disease, researchers will proceed to larger, more complicated, and more expensive field studies, where the vaccine is given to many thousands of people who might become infected with Shigella naturally. Otherwise, they’ll go back to the drawing board.

ALSO READ | Group of activists raise ethical, safety concerns about ICMR document on Controlled Human Infection Studies

As an American, Shigellosis is not a huge threat to me. Deaths from the disease are very rare with access to medical care and antibiotics available in the United States. The unjust realities of global inequality, however, mean that not everyone has access to these. Thus, Shigella kills hundreds of thousands of people per year, primarily in the developing world.

I was proud to temporarily sacrifice my time and my health to medical research that may one day save lives. I don’t want to pretend to be complete saint, however — I was paid for participating. In addition to enduring the pains of dysentery, after all, I had to take many days off from work.

People often react with shock and horror when they hear about my experience, but throughout the entire process, the researchers were professional, kind, and knowledgeable. I was fully informed of the risks involved and underwent many evaluations to ensure I was not at high risk of complications. I even had to pass a quiz about details of the study before I could join. 

India is likewise considering introducing CHIS. Based on my experience, I believe that with proper regulation and oversight, these studies can be done ethically, safely, and to great scientific benefit. I hope Indians who are interested in volunteering may someday have the opportunity that I had to make a difference.

(Jake Eberts is a former vaccine study research participant and communications director of 1Day Sooner.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.