Anti-vaccination leaders fuel black mistrust of medical establishment as
covid-19 kills people of colorThe memory of the horrific Tuskegee syphilis
study makes some African Americans suspicious of a coronavirus vaccine
[image: image.png]
Erik Underwood, center, with anti-vaccination activists — including, from
center right, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Kevin Jenkins and Joyce Brooks, a
leader with the Colorado NAACP — at a June rally in Denver. (Children's
Health Defense)
By Peter Jamison <>
July 17, 2020 at 5:40 p.m. CDT

The message came to Erik Underwood early this summer: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
wanted him to stand by his side at a rally on the steps of the Colorado
Capitol in Denver.

Underwood, an African American entrepreneur coming off a failed U.S. Senate
bid in Colorado’s Democratic primary, had long revered the Kennedy family
for its legacy of civil rights activism. But until recently he would not
have guessed the cause that would bring him together with a member of that
dynasty on a Sunday in June.

Kennedy, one of the nation’s leading anti-vaccination activists
was in Denver to oppose a bill tightening the state’s exemptions from
immunizations for schoolchildren. After months of discussion with vaccine
skeptics, Underwood had adopted Kennedy’s cause as his own. Despite the
overwhelming consensus of doctors and scientists who say vaccines are safe
for most people of every race, Underwood now believed that the drugs not
only were dangerous but also posed a special threat to black children.

“I see this as an injustice for everybody,” he said, “especially for the
black community.”

The bill ultimately passed, but not before debate over it showcased a
remarkable new alliance between the anti-vaccine movement and black leaders
in Colorado. Among those who testified against the bill, alongside Kennedy
and white parents, were a local NAACP leader and a prominent Black Lives
Matter activist.

The dynamics on display in Denver have nationwide implications as scientists
race to create a vaccine
for the deadly coronavirus
which has taken a disproportionately steep toll on people of color.
Although African Americans stand to benefit enormously from a vaccine, they
remain distrustful of a medical establishment with a history that includes the
Tuskegee syphilis study
and surgical experiments on enslaved people — not to mention the ongoing
disparities they confront in the U.S. health-care system.

A recent Washington Post poll found that 63 percent of black adults said
they were likely to get a coronavirus
vaccine, compared with 70 percent of whites and 78 percent of Hispanics.
Only 32 percent of black adults said they would definitely get a vaccine,
compared with 45 percent of whites and Hispanics.

Anti-vaccination leaders seize on coronavirus to push resistance to

The possibility that anti-vaccination leaders — who have already made
common cause with those dismissing the risks of the pandemic and protesting
state safety restrictions — could further undermine faith in a vaccine
among people of color is profoundly worrisome for public health officials.

“It is of great concern to me,” said Anthony S. Fauci, the federal
government’s top infectious-disease expert. “If there’s anyone you want to
get vaccinated, and anyone for whom vaccination would be most beneficial,
it would be for the people [anti-vaccination activists] are trying to
influence not to get vaccinated.”

He said it was vital not only to build African Americans’ trust in the
vaccine that is ultimately developed but also to persuade them to
participate in clinical trials, ensuring that the medicines are safe and
effective for all racial and ethnic groups. Efforts to enroll more people
of color in clinical trials for other drugs have been underway for years,
with mixed results

Repeated studies have demonstrated the safety of vaccines for the vast
majority of those who receive them. Many count immunizations — which have
all but eliminated diseases that once sickened, crippled or killed millions
of people every year — as among the greatest advances in the history of
medicine. The 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield
purported to show a link between a common vaccine and autism, launching the
modern anti-vaccination movement, was exposed as fraudulent
<> and retracted.

Anti-vaccination activists’ interest in minority communities is not new.
Kennedy has repeatedly sought allies among African American leaders.
Several years ago, Wakefield, the disgraced British ex-physician who was
also behind the 2016 film “Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe,” helped
persuade many Somali immigrants in Minneapolis
to avoid the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. The Somali community
was later hit by the state’s largest measles outbreak in nearly three

But amid the social fracturing surrounding covid-19 and the ferment over
racial injustice that has swept the United States following the killing of
George Floyd in police custody, there are signs that the anti-vaccine
movement’s message is gaining new traction.
‘Visions of Tuskegee’

It was last year, after she and other activists had toiled to block an
earlier school immunization bill, that Denver chiropractor Julie Bogdan
said she realized something was amiss in their movement.

“It was apparent to me that it looked very — it looked very white, to be
honest with you,” Bogdan recalled.

She decided to send out feelers among leaders in Denver’s black community.
Her goal, she said, was simply to ensure that people of color were
adequately educated about the alleged risks of inoculation.

“The intention was just to allow their community to have information and to
decide on their own behalf whether or not it was a movement they wanted to
participate in,” Bogdan said.

Through an African American friend, Bogdan convened a summit of sorts at a
Chipotle restaurant with Theo Wilson, a Black Lives Matter activist in
Denver. Wilson said he had questioned the safety of vaccines but had not
been involved in activism on the subject. He said the movement’s themes — a
predatory pharmaceutical industry profiting from the ignorance of
vulnerable people — resonated with him.

“Visions of Tuskegee still dance in our heads, man,” Wilson said in an
interview. “There is, in the black community, common cause — much larger
than people would think — because of our history in the medical community.”
[image: image.png]
A participant in the Tuskegee syphilis study undergoes a spinal tap in this
1930s photograph. (National Archives)

Bogdan also broached the subject with one of her patients, Joyce Brooks, a
black woman who heads the education committee of the Colorado NAACP. Brooks
helped arrange a presentation for the Denver chapter’s leadership by
Colorado anti-vaccination activist Phil Silberman and Toby Rogers, an
economist who frequently attacks the safety of vaccines on social media and
has done work in the past for Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense nonprofit

At that meeting, the pair ran through data they claimed showed that black
children were more prone than white children to suffering vaccine injuries.
Brooks said her NAACP colleagues were impressed by the information and
taken aback that Democratic legislators pushing to narrow vaccine
exemptions had not consulted with them.

“People really felt informed,” Brooks said, “and rather angry that they
hadn’t heard about this.”

Silberman and Rogers also met earlier this year with a group that included
African American pastors and other community leaders at a Denver
steakhouse. Underwood, who attended, said their message was well received.
“Let me tell you this: The black community gets it,” Underwood said. “The
black pastors got it. I got it, certainly.”

At least four black leaders — including Underwood, Wilson and Brooks —
spoke against the state legislation strengthening vaccination requirements
when it came up for a vote last month, according to the Mountain West News
which reported extensively on the debate over the legislation.

Assertions of disproportionate harm to African Americans from inoculation
are often based on a 2004 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study
that set off one of the more bizarre episodes in vaccine science history.
That study, conducted in Georgia, observed slightly higher rates of autism
among children who had received immunizations than among those who had not.
The authors said this was probably because autistic children were required
to be vaccinated to participate in preschool special-education programs.

Their findings were called into question when one of the authors, William
Thompson, later claimed the CDC had suppressed data showing a stronger link
between vaccines and autism in black children than in white children.
Thompson’s allegations, made during secretly recorded telephone
conversations with anti-vaccine activist Brian Hooker, were never
substantiated. A 2014 paper Hooker published on the subject was retracted.

“Immunizations are so important. I cannot think of any other medical
intervention that’s more important,” said David Satcher, a black physician
who served as U.S. surgeon general from 1998 to 2002 and who before that
was director of the CDC. “I would be very suspicious of someone who tried
to talk me out of immunizing my children.”

Satcher acknowledged that public health officials face special barriers
among African Americans but said it is vital that they continue advocating
the benefits of vaccines that have been proved safe and effective.

On Thursday, the president of the American Board of Internal Medicine and
others urged the federal government to enlist doctors and scientists of
color to build confidence in a coronavirus vaccine in minority communities.
In a letter to Moncef Slaoui, who is heading up the Trump administration’s
coronavirus vaccine development program, they said health officials should
“take the trust gap seriously as a problem to be addressed, every bit as
substantive as having enough syringes and needles with which to deliver a
‘Not going to be guinea pigs’

The extent of that trust gap has already become evident during the
coronavirus pandemic.

In Hobson City, Ala., a predominantly black town of 800 people, Mayor
Alberta Cooley McCrory said residents have largely avoided free coronavirus
tests that she arranged with help from a local hospital and county health
officials. Their fear, she said, is that the tests are part of a secret
experiment to infect them with the virus.

“They’re not going to be guinea pigs,” McCrory said, summarizing the
concerns of town residents. “They don’t want to end up like the people did
in Tuskegee.”
[image: image.png]
Participants in the notorious Tuskegee syphilis study in Davisville, Ala.,
in 1954. Researchers for the U.S. Public Health Service tracked the
progression of the disease in black men without their consent. (National
Archives) ( and National Archives/National Archives)

‘You’ve got bad blood’: The horror of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment

She said they likewise have expressed reluctance about the prospect of a
coronavirus vaccine. “They definitely don’t want shots of any kind,” said
McCrory, who has begun conferring with her counterparts in the Alabama
Conference of Black Mayors on strategies to allay suspicions.

Hobson City is about 100 miles north of the town whose name is synonymous
with one of history’s most notorious breaches of medical ethics: Tuskegee,
Ala. Beginning in the 1930s, U.S. government scientists tracked the
progress of untreated syphilis in hundreds of black men, concealing the
true nature of their research and withholding penicillin
after it was identified as an effective treatment.

Instances of mistreatment and inequity are not confined to the history
books. Studies have repeatedly found that black patients with broken bones,
appendicitis or other serious ailments have been less likely to receive
painkillers than white patients. In 2016, researchers at the University of
found that half of the white medical students they surveyed were willing to
entertain one or more false statements about biological differences based
on race, such as the notion that African Americans have less-sensitive
nerve endings than whites.

Such ongoing, personal experiences — rather than notorious episodes such as
Tuskegee — are the foundation for many African American’s mistrust of
doctors, said Harriet A. Washington, author of “Medical Apartheid: The Dark
History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times
to the Present.

“This has gone on systemically for 400 years, and people have an oral
history,” she said.

That history is now returning to haunt the U.S. medical establishment.

Federal health officials are considering offering some of the first doses
of a coronavirus vaccine to the most vulnerable groups, including African
Americans, Latinos and the elderly. But their motive for doing so — to
speed medicine to people who have suffered inordinately high rates of
severe sickness and death from covid-19 — is being questioned.

Del Bigtree, a national leader in the anti-vaccination movement, alleged
that the true rationale for a phased release of a vaccine could be to
observe its effects in black and brown people, turning them into unwitting
test subjects.

“The United States of America has a history of testing on African American
people,” Bigtree said in an interview. “To all of my African American
brothers and sisters, I want them to know, look — it looks like they might
try to create a fear base in you to make you part of a safety trial.”

That suggestion — vigorously denied by Fauci — is one that Brooks, the
Colorado NAACP official, finds all too plausible. Black and 73 years old,
she falls into a vulnerable demographic group to whom health officials
would like to offer a vaccine to as soon as possible.

But if that day comes, she said, she already knows what her answer will be.

“It’s another experiment,” she said. “And I would hope African Americans
would say, ‘No, you’re not shooting me up with that.’ ”

*Eddy Palanzo and Scott Clement contributed to this report.*