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Why the Black Community Struggles With Trusting the COVID-19 Vaccine

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Well educated, progressive Black friends of mine have all said they do not want to be guinea pigs and will not be first in line for the COVID-19 vaccine. I completely understand. With our nation’s history to look back on, how do we trust medical advancements moving forward? Do they feel that our lives have value and that we will not once again be experimented on? We are working on the front lines in this epidemic. We are infected more and die more. 

Why is that exactly? Because of racism, medical and research neglect. It is a conundrum where we are needed in research studies to make sure treatments and interventions are appropriate for us and yet the medical community has abused us so much that we cannot see clearly to participate in research for fear of further abuse.

Black people distrust the medical community and rightfully so. Historically the medical community has either maliciously experimented on us or ignored us and our uniqueness all together in determining what treatments are appropriate for us. Historically and now, racism plays a role in how we are treated medically. We have numerous reasons to not trust the system or the people running it.

Even with a growing number of Black people working in these fields, they are still constrained by pressure to stick with the status quo. As far as the medical community is concerned the White way is the right way. I grew up hearing these stories of deplorable treatments of Black people and they have not gotten better over the course of my life. I am confident you have not heard these stories now or then. You cannot appreciate how detrimental all this abuse to my psyche. All of this has led to bad health outcomes for Black people in such areas as COVID-19. 

In the past, Marion Sims known as the “Father of Modern Gynecology” used barbaric methods to perfect his treatments by using nonconsenting enslaved women he had bought to act out his experiments on. He performed these experiments without anesthesia and multiple times on the same women until he considered the procedure a success. We owe these medical accomplishments to them not to him.

Under the guise of receiving free health care from the Federal government of the United States, a Syphilis Study was conducted by the U.S. Public Health Services at Tuskegee from 1932-1972 on unsuspecting African American men. The purpose of the study really was to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis. These men suffered for 40 years for no reason but the scientific value of their health.

In 1951 Henrietta Lacks was a 30-year-old Black woman who had an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Her cells, without her consent, were stolen and used in research around the globe. This was allowed at the time in the medical community. She died of her cancer, but it was not until recently that her story came to light widely. Her cells have led to medical breakthroughs that have garnered excessive profits for researchers while her offspring lived in poverty and with limited access to good healthcare. 

Susan Moore MD, said “This is how Black people get killed.” She was a COVID-19 patient in a hospital in Indiana. She was another Black person not being believed when in pain and could not get the care she needed. Still to this day 50% of medical students falsely hold the racist belief that Black people feel less pain than their white counterparts. Dr. Moore is another example of a Black person not getting pain meds and being mistreated by the medical profession. She was prematurely discharged by the hospital and she died.

I was told my vitamin D was deficient and was then prescribed a Vitamin D supplement. I had a bone scan and everything was fine. I later find out through the report of a study that the vast majority of African-Americans have plenty of the form of vitamin D that counts — the type their cells can readily use. We however show up deficient not because we are but because the test is inaccurate to test Black people vitamin D levels. “The population in the United States with the best bone health happens to be the African-American population,” says Dr. Ravi Thadhani, a professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and lead author of the study. “But almost 80 percent of these individuals are defined as having vitamin D deficiency. This was perplexing.” 

No one took the time to test Black people, they just made assumptions. Once again not enough Blacks in research studies. I was told by a doctor to acquire a pulse oximeter just in case I come down with COVID-19 and I can monitor my blood oxygen to see if I need further medical care. Turns out pulse oximeters do not read the same for White patients with lighter skin pigmentation than they do for Black people with darker skin pigmentation. Doctors and home monitoring for COVID-19 severity use the pulse oximeters to determine oxygen levels in patients who are having trouble breathing and to determine the course of treatment and response to symptoms. No one previously thought to check and see if Black readings were the same as white. Just another example of medical and research neglect that can lead to misdiagnosis and loss of life. 

When I was raising my child I noticed that when she had a rash, I would refer to the baby book that showed pictures of rashes to help with a diagnosis. I noticed right away that all the entries and examples were of White skin images. How was I or the doctor to diagnose my child when her skin and rash looked like nothing in the books. I just recently heard that a medical student in London also noticed this gap in medical literature and worked with his professors to produce a book for doctors that shows illness on the skins of people of color. Why has this taken so long? 

President Obama and other prominent Black figures are stepping up to set examples for trusting the scientist and taking the vaccine. I am not sure this will work. President Trump’s rhetoric about the Vaccine is drowning out any other messages. His voice is the loudest and most prominent. “Operation Warp Speed” really set up this vaccine to fail in Black Communities since it implies that corners were cut just to be politically expedient.

I still have not heard it widely discussed how many Black people were in the study and what were their outcomes. This information would be helpful to me in making my decision. In December, up from September, 62% of Blacks now say they will take the Vaccine. This is promising but we still need the other 38% or we will continue to see bloodshed. Who is going to reach out to this 38% and convince them that this is safe and in their best interest to take it? Who will be influential enough? Who can acknowledge the history and still garner the respect needed to be listened to and followed? I am not sure this person exists.

The medical establishment has a long way to come before they will ever be trusted by Black Americans. The gap in research, treatment and cultural understanding can end up killing even more Black people from COVID-19. Medical Schools are going to need to do better in producing doctors and researchers and more Black ones at that. This is a problem the medical establishment created, and it is going to take them fixing it. They need to earn our trust.

Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash

Originally published: December 31, 2020
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