In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the development of vaccines to treat the disease, many African Americans have expressed deep apprehensions about receiving being vaccinated.
With more than half a million Americans dead and some 24 million infected with the virus, it may seem peculiar that anyone would decline a treatment that has been hailed by the medical establishment to be as much as 95% effective. However, for African Americans there is a disturbing backstory.
In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) launched what would later become known as the Tuskegee Experiment. It was designed to study the progression of the contagious venereal disease, syphilis. The government deceived unwitting, largely uneducated Black men into participating in the program under the guise of it being a treatment.
More than 600 men, principally sharecroppers and those who lacked access to professional medical care, were recruited from Macon, Ala. Physicians from the PHS told the men they were being treated for “bad blood”—which in those days could have been used to describe a wide range of conditions.
Of the group, 399 of the men reportedly had an underlying, latent case of the disease while a control group of 201 were disease free. Under the observation of health workers, the men consistently received placebos that physicians knew would have zero effect on the condition.
When penicillin became available in the late 1940s, the very same health officials convinced doctors in Macon County to deny the treatment so their studies could continue. They subsequently moved the program to Tuskegee Institute, which is now Tuskegee University, the well-known, historically black college (HBCU) founded by Booker T. Washington.
As the progression of the disease was tracked, health care workers watched as the men died, lost their eyesight, suffered mental and psychological manifestations—ultimately going insane, and experienced other health problems resulting from not receiving appropriate medical care.
It would be more than 30 years before a San Francisco-based disease investigator discovered the program and expressed deep concern over whether it was medically ethical. A committee, formed to review the study in the mid 1960s, determined that the program would continue until all the participants were dead. The analysis of project data was deemed to outweigh the physical well-being of the participants.
Outraged, the investigator leaked the information to a member of the Associated Press, and the story broke in the summer of 1972. The public was infuriated.
An ad hoc panel was assembled by the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs to review the study. Comprised of nine members from the fields of law, religion, medicine, education, labor and public affairs, the panel found that the men had freely agreed to participate, be studied and treated. Yet, no evidence showed that they were informed by the researchers of the program’s real purpose. Furthermore, the men were grossly misled and not provided with factual information prior to giving informed consent.
Beyond the lack of transparency or true consent, the men were never provided with appropriate treatment for the condition—not even when an effective treatment became widely available in the 1960s. They were never presented with the option of leaving the study. Based on this lack of opportunity to get treatment when available, the panel concluded that the Tuskegee study was “ethically unjustified.”
The panel also determined that the program’s results were statistically insignificant when considering the risk the program posed to its participants. The results actually showed that the treated men’s life expectancy decreased by 1.4 years. The panel finally recommended an end to the program.
In November 1973, the Tuskegee Experiment was officially terminated. However, 28 of the men had died from syphilis, and more than 100 had passed from disease-related complications. Additionally, more than 40 of their wives were infected and passed it on to scores of their children.
Congressional hearings in 1973 led to an out-of-court settlement of $10 million to the heirs of the participants. It also led to policies designed specifically to protect human subjects in research projects funded by the government.
Not until 25 years later did a government official publicly acknowledge that the study occurred and accept responsibility. In a gesture to promote better race relations, President Bill Clinton issued an official apology for the Tuskegee program, saying, “The United States government did something that was wrong—deeply, profoundly, morally wrong… It is not only in remembering that shameful past that we can make amends and repair our nation, but it is in remembering that past that we can build a better present and a better future.”
Vaccination Fear Founded on Multiple Historic Medical Injustices
Today, the profound injustice of the Tuskegee study is just one historic episode behind the trepidatious attitude of African Americans about receiving a government-approved medical treatment. This community relates more than most to President Ronald Reagan famous words that “the nine most horrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help!”