By LaKeshia N. Myers
Let me begin by saying, “Yes, I will be taking a COVID-19 vaccine when it is made widely available.” I will be asking my doctor for the Moderna vaccine specifically, because it was created by a Black woman; and when you trust Black women, we get things done.
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, the immunologist who was the lead developer of the Moderna vaccine, makes me trust the process (and the vaccine) just a little bit more. And Lord knows, I (and every other African American) have good reason to worry; the collective history of medical maltreatment of minorities in the United States leaves much to be desired.
The term “medical apartheid” may be new to some, but it was coined by medical ethicist Harriet Washington in her book of the same name. In the book, Washington chronicles the earliest encounters between Black Americans and Western medical researchers and the racist pseudoscience that resulted, detailing the ways African Americans, both enslaved and free, were used in hospitals for experiments conducted without their knowledge—a tradition that continues today within some Black populations.
The book also reveals how Blacks have historically been prey to practices like grave-robbing, unauthorized autopsies and the pseudoscience of eugenics. Of particular note are the shocking details about the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”—a now infamous study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service which initially involved 600 Black men – 399 with syphilis and 201 who did not have the disease. The study was conducted without the benefit of patients’ informed consent. Researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia and fatigue. In truth, the men did not receive the proper treatment needed to cure their illness. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals and burial insurance. Although originally projected to last only six months, the study went on for 40 years (Centers for Disease Control, 2020).
It is the legacy of unethical studies like Tuskegee and racism within the medical profession that cause African Americans angst today. As a race, we are less likely to donate organs or participate in clinical trials, which has a devastating effect on understanding how medications and certain diseases operate within our bodies. Because of this distrust, there is a smaller African American donor pool for organ donation for individuals suffering from kidney, lung and liver diseases.
This mistrust is steeped in the stories like that of Henrietta Lacks, who visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 complaining of vaginal bleeding. Upon examination, Lacks was found to have a large, malignant tumor on her cervix. Mrs. Lacks began undergoing radium treatments for her cervical cancer. A sample of her cancer cells retrieved during a biopsy were sent to a nearby tissue lab; what doctors would soon discover was that Mrs. Lacks’ cells were unlike any of the others he had ever seen: where other cells would die, Mrs. Lacks’ cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours. Today, these incredible cells— nicknamed “HeLa” cells, from the first two letters of her first and last names — are used to study and test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome and to learn more about how viruses work. They also played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine.
The year 1951 was not that long ago—barely 69 years. It is my hope that as doctors and policymakers rally to rid us of the effects of COVID-19 they take these stories into account and do a better job of educating personnel and the public to be better stewards of the power of medicine. Personally, I feel better knowing Dr. Corbett was at the helm of creating the vaccine because I know she has the knowledge, empathy and understanding of history on her side. If we are ever to build trust with the general public, it will take people of color, who are increasingly becoming this country’s majority—involved in the messaging of modern medicine.