Tragedy Of Tuskegee Experiment Lives On In COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

Nationwide, Black Americans have struggled to obtain COVID-19 vaccines. In several states, white Americans have obtained the vaccine at twice the rate or even three times the rate of Black Americans. For example, 5.5% of white Floridians have received the vaccine in comparison to only 2% of Black Floridians. There are a number of reasons why this disparity exists. Most notably, institutional racism within the healthcare system and economic disparities can play a role. Additionally, Black Americans have a longstanding distrust of the healthcare system. No single event in modern times has played a larger role in creating distrust between the Black community and the healthcare system than the Tuskegee Experiment. For four decades, the unethical biomedical study resulted in the deaths of more than 100 Black patients and the distrust created from this study has affected COVID-19 vaccine distribution in Tuskegee nearly 50 years later.

In a recent report, nurse Cheryl Owens explained to NPR that Black patients in Tuskegee have been very open about why they do not feel comfortable receiving the vaccine. During several conversations, Owens has asked family and friends why they may be feeling apprehensive about receiving the vaccine.

"So, I asked why?" she asked.

"And it was like, 'well, you remember that Tuskegee syphilis study. That's why.'"

The Tuskegee Experiment lasted into the 1970s and many people who live in the city today have memories of the experiment. For some, their brother was a part of the experiment. For others, it could be a close family friend, cousin, uncle or even parent that may have been involved in the experiment.

"They had local leaders, church leaders, medical people to convince them to become involved with the study," Owens said.

"They felt that the government really wanted to inject something in their bodies and they were going to eventually die from that."

Public health officials have tried to combat this longstanding distrust with transparency. For example, Owens published an op-ed about the vaccine in The Tuskegee News. Vaccine stations now also include "selfie stations" and stickers to let others know that they've been vaccinated. Health professionals believe that some will feel more comfortable getting the vaccine if they know others have received it.

"It's the biggest PR project to get Black people to take that vaccine," former Tuskegee Mayor Williams Dunn said.

"The more people hear about the vaccine, the more they know someone else who's received the vaccine, the more they see how well they did, the more comfortable they become with the vaccine," infectious disease physician Dr. April Truett added.

As the pandemic continues, administering vaccines will be extremely important. For nearly a year, Black Americans have been disproportionately impacted the coronavirus. Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized by the virus than white Americans and nearly twice as likely to die from it. Administering vaccines to Black communities could ultimately save thousands of lives.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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