Why are African Americans suspicious about vaccines?


Unfortunately, the colonial past of the USA and Canada means that African American and indigenous people have little trust in their governments.  For good reason they fear they might be taken advantage of because that has happened so often in the past. This is a stark reminder of the legacy of exploitation on the basis of race in both countries. The consequences of that racism are long, sinewy and durable.

In the US one incident stands out. That relates to 40 years of deadly experimentation at Tuskegee by Alabama scientists saturated with the dominant ideology of the time–white supremacy. Those experiments bred suspicion–justifiable suspicion. Those suspicions are now haunting the United States many decades later when it needs the trust of everyone–including African Americans.

It is well-known that historically people of colour have been taken advantage of during health emergencies. The African American men of Tuskegee Alabama were one group that was shamelessly exploited men.

More than 40 years ago scientists got the idea that they would like to “observe the natural history of syphilis.” They wanted to use subjects that were completely unaware that they were involved in an experiment as otherwise the data might be contaminated.  Well, the data was clean; the minds of the experimenters were not.

To keep the minds of the subjects uncompromised, the experimenters thought it would be reasonable to lie to their subjects about what was going on. The subjects thought they were being treated for blood problems. Actually, they had syphilis and were not being treated for blood problems or even for the life-threatening illness they did not know they had.

These experiments were not conducted by some shady medical operatives. They were conducted by the United States Public Health Service (USPHS). It was an offshoot of the government! As Ada McVean explained, “Even after penicillin was discovered as a safe and reliable cure for syphilis, the majority of men did not receive it.”

Here is the really horrific fact. As McVean said,

“Multiple times throughout the experiment researchers actively worked to ensure that their subjects did not receive treatment for syphilis.”

 Actually, the researchers took active steps to prevent participants from getting treatment that could have saved their lives.

Most of us have heard of experiments Nazis conducted on prisoners of war and in the death camps. Those prisoners had no choice. They were the victims of a totalitarian state.  How much better off were the African Americans?

Eventually  there was huge outrage across America. A Class action lawsuit was launched, as it should. In 1974, after I had already been in Law School for nearly 3 years, to put the time into context, Congress passed a law that scientists would be required to obtain informed consent from all subjects, even African Americans.

Yet, as I said, the legacy of exploitation is long and hard. That history is part of the reason that African Americans are reluctant to take vaccines even when their physicians or friends recommend them. And now the United States desperately needs the cooperation of African Americans. If insufficient numbers elect to take the vaccines the United States will not attain herd immunity and then the virus will continue to spread among the unvaccinated communities and, perhaps, even affect those who have been vaccinated, if the virus continues to mutate and evolve to  achieve victory over the vaccines. This poses a real risk to all Americans! Sometimes the effects of historic injustices can be felt through the generations.

McVean summarized the problem this way:

“We know all about evil Nazis who experimented on prisoners. We condemn the scientists in Marvel movies who carry out tests on prisoners of war. But we’d do well to remember that America has also used its own people as lab rats. Yet to this day, no one has been prosecuted for their role in dooming 399 men to syphilis.”

This is why historic injustices require truth and reconciliation. That is a lesson the United States has not learned. Canada claims to have learned, it but I am not sure they have.


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