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Vaccine hesitancy dates back to Tuskegee Experiment

A health worker injects a woman during clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine in Hollywood, Fla.
A health worker injects a woman during clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine in Hollywood, Fla.

Fifty years ago, a shameful chapter in American history was closed: the end of the Tuskegee Experiment. But its impact is still being felt in battling the coronavirus pandemic.

The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male — its formal name — was begun in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1932. Researchers observed the effects of the untreated disease, and the men were not told about the nature of the experiment. About 400 men were infected, with more than 100 dying as a result. They also spread the disease to their families.

By the mid-1940s, penicillin had rendered syphilis entirely treatable, but the experiments in Tuskegee continued until 1972.

“Men who were poor and African-American, without resources and with few alternatives, they believed they had found hope when they were offered free medical care by the United States Public Health Service. They were betrayed,” President Bill Clinton said at a White House ceremony in 1997.

He offered an apology to the survivors of the experiment — and to the families of those who did not. The president conceded that what was done during those 40 years cannot be undone.

“But we can end the silence; we can stop turning our heads away,” he said. “We can look at you in the eye and finally say, on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful.”

“And I am sorry,” said Clinton.

“The damage done by the Tuskegee study is much deeper than the wounds any of us may have suffered. It speaks to our faith in government,” said Herman Shaw, 95, a Tuskegee survivor who joined the president for the ceremony.

“We were treated unfairly, to some extent, like guinea pigs,” said Shaw. “We were not pigs. We were all hard-working men and not boys – and citizens of the United States. The wounds that were inflicted upon us, cannot be undone.”

Ernest Hendon, the last Tuskegee Experiment survivor, died in 2004 at the age of 96.

A half-century after the end of Tuskegee, a new legacy has stemmed from it: the reluctance by many African-Americans, and other people of color, to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“[Tuskegee] is still in the minds of many, and that has led to ‘vaccine hesitancy’ amongst African-Americans, unfortunately,” said Dr. Michelle Grier-Hall, a pediatrician at Community Clinic in Pensacola and the lead of the clinic’s incident management team.

Government, she says, is now looking out for everyone’s best interests — including African-Americans.

“You have African-American healthcare providers, like myself, who are investing in making sure our community is protected against this virus,” said Grier-Hall. “And trying to spread information and stop the disinformation and misinformation that exists in our society right now.”

Just over one year after the vaccines became available, Grier-Hall says it remains a challenge to get shots into minority arms. According to the state health department, 43% of Black Escambia County residents are vaccinated, compared to 59 percent of those who identify as white.

“We must change those numbers if we’re going to get over this pandemic,” said Grier-Hall. “And it’s really going to take educating, it’s going to take individuals talking one-on-one with the community to reassure them that we have their best interests. We want to make sure everyone is protected.”

And as if that’s not enough, there’s a new challenge — convincing parents to get their kids the new vaccine made for ages 5 to 11 from Pfizer.

“If I can get those [adults] who are on the fence vaccinated, that would definitely improve our rate and hopefully clear up any misconceptions they have about the vaccine,” she said. “We all have to do our part; in whatever opportunity I get to talk with the adults. With the adolescents, I’m like, ‘Let’s vaccinate.’”

Dr. Michelle Grier-Hall.jpg
CCNWFL
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Dr. Michelle Grier-Hall, Community Clinic of NWFL

This as the Food and Drug Administration decided earlier this month to postpone consideration of COVID-19 vaccines for kids under 5.

Part of the argument to the unvaxxed is how COVID exacerbates the effects of other diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension. And Grier-Hall says no other form of vaccination, such as polio and smallpox, has ever drawn such opposition.

She blames politics.

“And they should not have been,” she said. “The reason we don’t see as much flu is because of the vaccine. And of course the numbers with COVID are going down, because we have a vaccine. So once you start talking to them one-on-one — and they’re getting it from a trusted resource. I think we are able to make a difference."

Along with the list of ailments that COVID-19 can aggravate, African-Americans can add one more: sickle cell. Grier-Hall says she’s seen those complications firsthand.

“And unfortunately, these are diseases that affect African-Americans, and as you start identifying those chronic conditions, we’ve seen disproportionately more deaths in that patient population,” Grier-Hall said. “Sickle-Cell patients are highly at-risk and any hematologist or oncologist, they would tell their patients, ‘You need to be vaccinated.’”

The bottom line, says Dr. Michelle Grier-Hall, is a COVID-19 vaccine is self-protection against the virus for everyone in general, and for the Black community in particular.

“As an African-American physician, I can’t encourage you enough to take care of yourself and protect yourself, because we have to — as a community — take care of our own.”

More information can be found at Community Health of Northwest Florida — healthcarewithinreach.org, and at cdc.gov.