“You are comparing men not getting a vaccine to a vaccine that is available. So how can you compare not having something to the opportunity to having something?” Lillie Head said.
Head is the daughter of Johnnie Mae and Freddie Lee Tyson and president of the Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation. Her father, Freddie, unknowingly participated in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study which lasted 40 years from 1932 to 1972.
The study, which was conducted by the United States Public Health Service (USPHS), has been cited as a driving factor in Black American’s discomfort with taking the COVID-19 vaccine.
Head, and her sister Joyce Christian, along with other survivors’ descendants are making it known that the study actually didn’t give the men the known cure, they withheld it from them to continue the exploitive research.
“What I find interesting is that when penicillin became known as the therapy for treating syphilis, those men were denied treatment. I’m having trouble understanding the logic,” Head said.
“Some people also think it was an experiment that gave these men syphilis, and it wasn’t,” she said, “They didn’t give these men treatment.”
Since the arrival of the first vaccines, surveys have shown a large portion of African Americans are reluctant to get it. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 35% of Black Americans would “probably not” or “definitely not” take the vaccine, even if it was free and deemed safe by scientists.
Seventy-one percent of African Americans are worried about side effects, and almost half say they have distrust of vaccines in general.
In the Tuskegee study, the USPHS conducted research on over 600 Black men from Macon County, Alabama, 399 had syphilis, and 201 did not. The men didn’t give their consent to be studied, nor did the USPHS reveal the true intentions of the research.
In February of this year, Bill Jenkins, an epidemiologist credited as a whistleblower in the study, died at age 73.
Of the widespread mistrust, Head said that while knowledge of the study has contributed to mistrust, the nation’s lack of effort to rebuild trust between the medical field and Black Americans should also be considered.
“I think it’s because of over 400 years of social injustice and the way African Americans have been treated in this country…It’s a combination of everything... In order to have trust you have to have trustworthiness. If you haven’t proven yourself over time, no one is going to trust you.”
Head says that what happened to the men in the study led to the creation of the Institutional Review Board, which was involved in the approval process of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Their Foundation is a place for descendants to share their stories and open up about the trauma and shame they’ve experienced as a result of the study. They have plans to get the stories of the men in the study known and encourage people to “step out on faith” when it comes to the vaccine.
“I think our father would want us to step out on faith. We have been brought to our knees, and we need to stand together. We need to seek some relief,” Christian said.
Civil rights organizations and public health officials are organizing campaigns to build trust among African Americans in order to get the vaccine to the community disproportionately affected by the virus.
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