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Descendants Of Tuskegee Experiment Victims Are Urging People To Get The COVID-19 Vaccine

Descendants of the Tuskegee experiment victims are participating in a new documentary to help combat vaccine hesitancy in the Black community. 

The documentary, entitled Tuskegee Legacy Stories, examines the nature of the Tuskegee experiment by contrasting it to the current scientific climate and addresses misinformation surrounding the 20th-century study.


“Knowing that you were denied treatment and that you were lied to would affect anybody,” Carmen Head Thornton, whose grandfather, Freddie Lee Tyson, was a part of the Tuskegee experiment, told NBC Nightly News. “There is a lesson in taking broken pieces and turning it into something that’s effective and supportive.

According to the CDC, out of 195 million Americans who have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, only 10% are Black. But Black Americans are two times more likely to die of the virus than white people.

“If you’re using the syphilis study as your rationale for not getting the vaccine, stop doing that,” Thornton added. 

The Tuskegee experiment, originally titled “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” was a 40-year experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) beginning in 1932. The research involved hundreds of Black men with and without syphilis, which is a contagious venereal disease. Most of the men were sharecroppers and were promised free health care, free meals and burial insurance and were told they were being treated for “bad blood.” 

The subjects in the study were told they were receiving treatment for the disease for six months but were instead given placebos. Once penicillin became the recommended use for treatment in the 1940s, researchers continued to withhold the antibiotic that could have saved hundreds of lives and prevented the disease from causing blindness, insanity or spread to spouses and children. 

By the time the contents of the Tuskegee experiment were leaked by prominent news outlets in 1972, 28 participants had died from the disease and over 100 had passed away from syphilis-related complications, History.com reported.

“As a result of what happened to these men, it changed the course of American clinical research,” co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID, Dr. Reed Tuckson, said. “It created the Institutional Review Boards which is a very important intervention that says that there must be people who can examine every study that is being done on human beings in this country.”

“Wherever there’s research that’s happening, there has to be informed consent documents that are signed,” Thornton, who is also the director of research, grants, workforce and development at the National Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said. “Not just when you’re participating in clinical trials but also if you’re going to get any type of medical procedure, those things came because of that study.”

Harvard historian Evelyn Hammonds also acknowledged the history of Black medical activism which has helped the Black community build a semblance of trust in healthcare despite a strong lack of trust in the past.  

“We have to touch that history of health activism that is long present in Black communities,” Harvard historian Evelyn Hammonds said, American Academy of Arts & Sciences reported. “And the trusted community leaders are the ones that the community turns to in these times to validate and support the fact that vaccines that are being proposed for people to take are safe and efficacious.”

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