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The Tuskegee experiment shows us why Black people are skeptical about the new vaccines

In 1932, the US government launched a racist study to "test" treatment programs for syphillis. The experiment included only Black men.

The Tuskegee experiment shows us why Black people are skeptical about the new vaccines
Image Source: CDC

In a recent interview on SiriusXM's The Joe Madison Show, former President Barack Obama explained that it was reasonable for Black folks to be hesitant about the new vaccines against the Coronavirus. He said, "I understand you know historically—everything dating back all the way to the Tuskegee experiments and so forth—why the African American community would have some skepticism." He did note, nonetheless, that vaccines were the reason why we no longer had preventable diseases like polio, measles, and smallpox. However, in order to truly understand why the vaccines must be properly tested in order to ensure as many folks as possible feel safe to get immunized, it is important to study Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.


What was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study?

In the year 1932, the Public Health Service in collaboration with Alabama's Tuskegee Institute launched a clinical study to record the natural history of syphilis. The researchers hoped to "justify" treatment programs specifically targetting for Black folks. It was officially named the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” Researchers used a sample size of 600 Black men, 399 of whom had syphillis and 201 who did not. Most critically, none of the participants were asked for their consent. They were informed by researchers that they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term that was used at the time to describe several ailments such as syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In actuality, they did not receive the treatment required to cure them of their ailments. Additionally, while they were informed that the study would only take six months, it lasted 40 long years. In exchange for taking part in the experiment, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance.


What went wrong?

40 years after the study was first launched, an Ad Hoc Advisory Panel was finally created to review the study by the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs. This was only because an Associated Press story about the experiment had caused a public outcry. This panel, consisting of nine members from various fields (including medicine, law, religion, labor, education, health administration, and public affairs) found that the participants had been misled by the researchers. The Black men involved in the study had not been given all the facts required to provide informed consent. There was absolutely no evidence that the researchers had informed them of the study or its real purpose.


Even worse, the study's participants were never given adequate treatment for their disease. Even after penicillin, a new, highly effective treatment, became the drug of choice for syphilis in 1947, the researchers withheld the drug from the men. The subjects were also not given the choice of quitting the study. Ultimately, the panel ruled that the study was "ethically unjustified." The knowledge gained from the study was negligible in comparison to its risks and the irreparable harm that was caused. In October 1972, the panel force-ended the study. A class-action lawsuit on behalf of the participants and their families was filed, resulting in a $10 million out-of-court settlement. The United States government also promised to give lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all living participants and their family members through the newly-established The Tuskegee Health Benefit Program (THBP). In January 2004, the last study participant died. Five years later, the last widow receiving THBP benefits died. Currently, there are 11 offspring receiving medical and health benefits through the program.


How is this relevant to the Coronavirus pandemic?

This experiment shows us just how Black folks, particularly Black men, and their bodies have been exploited in the name of science and progress. As we begin to roll out vaccinations against the Coronavirus, the United States government must be critical of racial biases as well as the demographics of the groups that will first receive treatment. This year has been a reminder of just how racist and unjust our medical systems are. Black people are not test subjects or lab rats. In our search for a cure, we must not manufacture another public health crisis along racial lines.


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