The Tuskegee Experiment and The Covid-19 Vaccine

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y Dr. John E. Warren, Publisher, The San Diego Voice & Viewpoint

As we rapidly approach the availability of three vaccines to deal with the Covid-19 virus, the topic at hand becomes,  who will get the vaccine first and whether or not those designated as being of greatest risk will actually take the vaccine when made available? Among the skeptics, African Amereicans are at the top of the list and not without reason.

In 1932, Tuskegee Institute partnered with the Public Health Service to conduct what was called, “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”. The study was done in the hopes of justifying a treatment program. This was before the development of penicillin, which became the preferred treatment for syphilis in 1947. There were 600 total participants. 399 men with syphilis, and 201 men in the study without syphilis, who were the placebo group. Both were without the knowledge of what they were being treated for. They were told it was “bad blood”. The study was done without the benefit of “Informed Consent “ on the part of the participants; they were never offered treatment or penicillin. There was no effort to cure the illness for more than 40 years. Not only were they never given treatment, they were not permitted to quit the study.

In July 1972, an Associated Press story about the study caused such a public reaction that a review of the study found it “ethically unjustified” and stopped the study at once. A class action lawsuit on behalf of the men was filed a year later, which led to an out of court settlement in 1974 for 10 million dollars. The U.S. government created the Tuskegee Health Benefit Program (THBP) to give lifetime medical and burial services to all living participants. In 1975 wives, widows and offspring were added. In 1995, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) was given responsibility for the program and the last study participant died in 2004.

The following highlights the evil of this whole effort. In 1940, efforts were made to keep the men from getting treatment under the military draft effort. In 1947 the U.S. Public Health Service established “Rapid Treatment Centers” to treat syphilis, but men in the study were not treated. In 1969, CDC reaffirmed the need for the study and gained support of the local medical societies (American Medical Association and the National Medical Association chapters) to continue the studies.

But this abuse of medical ethics in the treatment of Black people also extended to Black women. In 1960, the state of North Carolina enacted a voluntary sterilization law. This law provided the state with the ability to sterilize those thought to be feeble-minded. This was primarily aimed at African American women on welfare. This practice went from 23% of Black women being sterilized in the 1930s to an increase of 64% between 1964 and 1966.

One of the most well known cases of this was revealed by the victim, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, a renowned Civil Rights leader. She spoke of her own involuntary sterilization at the Sunflower County Hospital In Mississippi where she later testified that 6 out of 10 African American women going into that facility were involuntarily sterilized.

Against such history, it is not hard to understand why African Americans would be reluctant to take the vaccine, even though we are among the highest risk groups in the nation. There are questions today as to what degree African Americans are currently a part of the trial groups for each of the COVID-19 vaccines and where they are geographically located. Are there any differences in side effects that should be made known?

Between these questions and the conduct of President Trump suggesting the use of bleach and other crazy ideas to treat the virus, it’s going to take more than a new President for some to feel safe. Many feel it’s going to take a major public policy campaign just to save lives.

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