By Glenn Ellis
In spite of Blacks being one of the populations hit hardest around the world from COIVD-19, a poll from The Undefeated sports and pop culture web site and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost half of all Black would not take a vaccine. The findings from this poll gives cause to pause, and ask yourself how can this be?
The question is raised after Pfizer Inc. said this week that its COVID-19 vaccine may be a 90 percent effective, based on early and incomplete test results that nevertheless brought a big burst of optimism.
Blacks distrust of vaccines it didn’t start with COVID-19. The origins of Black people and mistrust goes even farther than the infamous syphilis study conducted by the United States government on unsuspecting, illiterate Black farmers. They observed the progression of the disease as the syphilis viral infection ravaged their bodies until death. This was done even after the discovery of penicillin, a known cure.
In fact, in order to truly go back to the beginning, one must take a mental trip; board the ships that brought cargoes of kidnapped, enslaved Africans to this hemisphere. It was here that Black people’s horrific experiences with the health care and medical system began.
It was on those ships that white doctors, in an effort to hone their medical skills, as well as to earn money from mentoring and training young medical students, took advantage of the captive audience and had their way. All types of medical curiosities and theories were conducted and carried out with no regard for any ethical or humane considerations. After all, in the minds of those doctors and medical students, these were not human beings; they were slaves.
This early introduction to how Blacks were viewed by the health care and medical system, was reinforced throughout our history by the experiences of generation after generation of Black people who passed these experiences down. So, by the time of the exposure of the 40-year syphilis study at Tuskegee Institute, now university, Black folks had enough first-hand evidence for 400 years to know, without a doubt that when it comes to their health, Black Lives Don’t Matter.
Early in the 1950’s, this nation experienced, for the first time in its history, the only time the entire nation was willing and cooperative in taking a vaccine: the polio epidemic. Those who survived this awful virus, ending up wearing painful metal braces on their paralyzed legs or they had to be placed in so-called iron lungs, which helped them breathe.
There was no vaccine and few treatments. It was described as “one of the worst biological disasters in American history.” Immunologist, Paul Offit often says about the polio vaccine that it was second only to the Atomic bomb in terms of what Americans feared most. With polio, every man, woman, and child in America saw the news and other visual indications that there was something going around that was affecting all of us.
Even after a bad batch, at one manufacturing lab, made national news after tens of thousands of children were paralyzed or killed not only did some people injected with the tainted vaccine get sick, but some who got the vaccine went on to infect family members and neighbors. Yet, it didn’t affect peoples’ willingness to take the vaccine; they even made sure they got their children vaccinated.
Sadly (in many ways), subsequent vaccines for other diseases have been eradicated, and this has not helped with vaccine-hesitancy across the racial and ethnic spectrum.
For two or three generations, most Americans doctors, or patients, have never seen an active case of measles; pertussis; whooping cough; diphtheria; or any of a number of diseases that require the vaccinations that people have routinely avoided.
Added to this is the unresolved issue of accumulated, generational mistrust, and you’ve a great recipe for a nation where at least 50 percent of its Black population reportedly will outright refused to take a COVID-19 vaccine should one become available. Further evidence that at no point in history has this nation acknowledged the need to address the mistrust that Black folks have towards medicine in general, and vaccines in particular. This is further evidenced right now during the COVID-19 pandemic. From that same poll conducted by The Undefeated and the Kaiser Family Foundation, almost 65 percent of Blacks don’t believe that the COIVD-19 vaccine is being developed with their best interest in mind.
It is critical to not only to build trust in the vaccines by Black people, trust has been built for Blacks throughout their entire experience at every level of the medical and health care system. This has never been the case throughout this country’s history; it’s not the case today. We still aren’t deemed important enough to make sure we are included in clinical trials, in spite of the fact that true science demands that researchers for new drugs and treatments make sure that the medicines are safe and effective for all racial and ethnic groups.
On top of all of that, it still didn’t help to have the entire scientific and research community get in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine in “Warp Speed.” All these years we’ve been told that it normally takes two-to-five years for a vaccine to go from discovery to research phase.
Don’t blame Black people for vaccine-hesitancy. We’re just trying to survive…
Glenn Ellis, MPH is a Visiting Scholar at The National Bioethics Center at Tuskegee University and a Harvard Medical School Bioethics Fellow. He is author of Which Doctor? and Information is the Best Medicine. For more good health information visit: www.glennellis.com.