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Vaccine mistrust goes back decades for some in the African American community

Posted at 11:00 PM, Jan 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-29 10:14:21-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — The 1932 Tuskegee project is still impacting the African-American community nearly a century later.

"Many minority people have been used as guinea pigs back in the day," said Bethel Missionary Baptist Church Pastor RB Holmes.

The study of syphilis in Alabama involved 600 black men, 200 who did not have the disease. They were told they were being treated for "bad blood." While they were given things like free medical exams, meals, and burial insurance, they did not get is the care they needed or were promised.

"They felt they had an opportunity to get treatment and learn about the disease but they were treated poorly," said Florida A&M University Director of the Southeastern Regional Black Archives and Research Center Dr. Nashid Madyun. "Many people died. The experiment went on for decades from the 1930s to the 1970s. There was a settlement to families and participants, but the damage was done."

Dr. Madyun said that experiment still haunts many in the African American community today.

In a study by the National Association of Broadcasters and the Reynolds Journalism Institute, one out of four African Americans surveyed said they were hesitant to get the coronavirus vaccine due to safety concerns.

When asked to respond to statements like "I do not trust the motives of whoever is funding the vaccine," 23 percent of those surveyed "strongly agreed."

Pastor Holmes is chair of the Florida coronavirus vaccination community education and engagement task force. The goal is to get at least 60 percent of African Americans in the state vaccinated.

Part of the group's objectives include developing targeted messaging for different communities, and outreach in under-served areas like the 32304 and 32305 zip codes.

"I rolled up my sleeves for the camera to lead by example," said Pastor Holmes.

Also leading by example, Bond Community Health doctors like Kelley Miller, who feel it's time to move forward.

"I got it and I'm waiting for my second dose as we speak," said Dr. Miller. "I would say go ahead and get it."

Dr. Miller is part of the group distributing vaccines to under-served communities on Tallahassee's Southside. While she understands the hesitation to get the vaccine, she knows the same risks do not exist today that did during the Tuskegee Project.

"Since the Tuskegee experiment, there are a lot of checks and balances in place that prevent the likelihood of that happening again," said Dr. Miller. "And this vaccine, both of them, were tested in a lot of people and they've been proven to be at least 95 percent effective."

While the impacts of the syphilis study were devastating for African Americans, the impact of the coronavirus is already far greater. Health and community leaders agree it will only get worse if people choose not to get vaccinated.

"It is time for Americans and African-Americans to begin to trust science. We have had a lot of deaths as a result of conspiracy theories and claims of fake news," said Dr. Madyun.

"We must be engaged with our people, we must inform our people and inspire our people that these vaccines save lives," said Dr. Holmes. "We're in the business of saving lives."