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Why Black community leaders say history can explain vaccine hesitancy

Published: May. 27, 2021 at 9:50 PM CDT|Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 10:29 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Black community leaders are citing a study from the 1930s to help explain why some are feeling hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine.

NBC15 has reported that vaccination rates in Wisconsin vary across racial groups. On Thursday, the number of white Wisconsinites vaccinated was 20 percent higher than that of Black Wisconsinites.

As neighborhood clinics have tried to tackle the disparity, leaders like Letesha Nelson, the CEO of the Goodman Center, and Ruben Anthony, the CEO of the Urban League, have told NBC15 about historical mistrust and fear of the American health care system. They both cited the Tuskegee study, which began in 1932.

Government medical workers recruited hundreds of Black men who had syphilis so that doctors could track the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the study was unethical because there is no evidence that participants gave their “informed consent,” or permission knowing the full story. Doctors also withheld treatments, though they were widely available.

“What was so unethical is that they targeted African American men,” Dr. Eva Vivian, a professor at the UW School of Pharmacy, said. “I feel that they felt that a Black man’s life didn’t matter, that their lives were less valuable than [those of] white men.”

She continued, “The past impacts the present. Often when you’re mistreated, you think back to how your ancestors or your grandparents were treated. And this often explains the behaviors that we see today.”

At the same time, Dr. Vivian, who is also the president of the African American Health Network of Dane County, said she does not believe historical events are the biggest reason for vaccine hesitancy. She instead pointed to present-day issues.

“What we’re seeing today with vaccine hesitancy is a result of structural racism and its impact on laws and policies that have affected the healthcare system,” she said. “There are some well-intentioned, health care providers that genuinely care for their patients, but there are policies within the institutions that they work for that actually create disparities.”

To offer an example, she named “something as simple” as the hours a clinic is open. “It can disadvantage those individuals that have a lack of transportation,” she said.

According to the CDC, participants in the Tuskegee study reached a $10 million settlement in 1974, and President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology in 1997.

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