By Amy Miller
Light glows dimly at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines are in late phases of development with high rates of success.
That is good news. Like many of you, I have not eaten in a restaurant, ridden in cars with friends, hugged a non-family member or been in my office in eight months. I consider myself among the extremely fortunate.
But a vaccine won’t change the course of the disease, or bring society back to something we could call normal, unless three things happen:
The vaccine is widely available.
We all trust it
We all take it.
Number 2 is the tough one. Number 1 is out of our hands. And number 3 is easy if we decide to take it once the vaccine is approved, manufactured and distributed.
Some people do not trust vaccines. People who agree on most every other major issue may not agree on vaccines. They either are worried about chemicals and big pharma greed or they resent the regulations of big government. In short, they are not willing to take a risk they believe is significant, despite what doctors and public health experts almost unilaterally say.
This is the time to trust. This is the time not to think about a tiny risk to our own children and their health but rather about health of the vulnerable, who are more likely than you or I to die if they get COVID. This is the time to think of the health care workers who have put their lives on the line for almost a year, dying at a higher rate than the rest of us.
If we believe the scientists when it comes to climate change, if we believe the scientists who say masks help, we should believe them now. (If you don’t believe in climate science and masks, we can talk another time.)
For people of color, the challenge of gaining trust is significant and the risk of not getting vaccinated is higher. African Americans have suffered from COVID at higher rates than the population as a whole. And the history of African Americans and the US public health care system leaves them more suspicious of public health initiatives and more likely to say they would not get a COVID vaccine.
Mistrust of the vaccine among minority groups is based on several factors: the extra rapid development process; the question of whether vaccine trials involved a diverse population; and justifiable anger at the erroneously titled Tuskegee Syphilis Study and past treatment of African Americans by the public health system. In that study, which ran from 1932 to 1972, some 600 African-American men infected with syphilis were denied care, a shameful episode in our nation’s health care history.
It is true that we cannot always trust the government, or large corporations. It is also true that to disbelieve the science when it comes to COVID and the vaccines will cost more lives and bring far more loss, economically, socially and health-wise.
One loving and caring woman I know admitted that she felt safe not vaccinating her children for measles, mumps and rubella because the vast majority of kids had been vaccinated, so why take a risk with her own kids.
That is the extreme antithesis of what we have learned in the past year: that we will sink or swim together. Please folks, let’s swim together and get the vaccines when they are available. Let us move on together, caring about each other.
By Guy Trammell Jr.
Let’s be very clear, THERE WAS NO TUSKEGEE SYPHILIS STUDY. We must stop purporting this myth! The actual title was: “The United States Public Health Service Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Male Negro.” For 40 years, from 1932 to 1972, the Public Health Service (nothing to do with Tuskegee) studied 399 Black men in order to produce Black cadavers for autopsy.
When some of the men moved to other states, they still were denied treatment. They were to die for science. This travesty produced an inherent distrust of the health care system among Blacks and other minorities.
The origin of the study, sponsored by the Rosenwald Fund from 1929 to 1931, was a syphilis control project to both test and treat rural Negro victims of syphilis. Established by Sears president Julius Rosenwald, the fund operated in rural counties of five southern states, including Macon County, Alabama. However, 1929’s Great Depression restricted funding and ended the project early. In 1932, the Public Health Department took over, halted the treatment aspect and thereafter conducted medical racism.
Nearly 100 years before that, beginning in the 1840s, Tuskegee’s plantation physician, James Marion Sims, became the father of modern gynecology by performing experimental operations on enslaved Black women, without anesthesia. In 1849, 30 operations were conducted on one Black woman.
In 1752, an American colonist wrote: “Twere desirable that [smallpox] should break out and spread …among the Indians. It would be fully as good as an army.” On June 24, 1763, British troops at Fort Pitt (the future Pittsburgh) gave blankets from their Small Pox Hospital to the Delaware tribe, causing a smallpox epidemic.
Similar incidents reported by other tribes include July 1837, when the Mandans received “smallpox-laden blankets” from Fort Clark on the Missouri River. The “smallpox winter” epidemic all but wiped out their tribe and two others. American tribes had an 80% death rate from colonists’ diseases: smallpox, typhus, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, mumps and yellow fever.
Compare that staggering death rate with the infamous Black Death of 1347 to 1351, which killed more than 30% of Europe and Asia’s population.
At four, I detested Wednesdays because moving to Indonesia entailed weekly inoculations. Ice cream was the reward, but I just wanted them to “STOP STICKING ME!” One Wednesday the doctor rushed out to meet this screaming, crying little brat being dragged in. He yelled, “The medicine didn’t come, I can’t vaccinate you!” I stopped, said, “Oh,” and quietly walked back to the car. That was a good day.
In 1937, polio crippled and killed children and adults alike, so Tuskegee Institute opened the first ever Infantile Paralysis Center for treatment. In 1954, the Tuskegee Carver Research Foundation’s Black scientists Drs. Russell W. Brown and James Henderson produced over half a million polio cultures, leading to the Salk vaccine’s successful 1955 polio eradication campaign.
Blacks are 2 1/2 times more likely than whites to contract COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from it. However, only 32% of Blacks would trust the first vaccine out. One Nashville Black woman recently said, “The word ‘vaccination’ don’t scare me. The word ‘trial’ do.”
When a company produces unsafe products, we don’t badger customers to trust them again; we require the company to restore product safety and quality to become trustworthy. Medical racism must end!