Medical mistrust in the Black community is a reasonable and justifiable conclusion from studying history. It’s a cruel irony that the same people who’ve endured centuries of inequity and injustice in the name of medical research are the ones who need the COVID-19 vaccines the most.
As a Black medical student, I know the burden of having to acknowledge the past that many might dismiss while trusting in the current science. That’s why it’s incumbent on everyone to talk to our friends, family and community about past and current injustices, but also about our future where we can take control of our health by getting vaccinated.
Early breakthroughs in gynecological treatment were achieved by non-consensual surgeries (without anesthesia) on enslaved Black women by J. Marion Sims from 1845 to 1849. Medical researchers conducting the Tuskegee experiment from 1932 to 1972 intentionally withheld treatment from hundreds of Black men with syphilis to see the long-term effects of the disease on the brain and nervous system. In 1952, stolen stem cells from Henrietta Lacks were used for many medical discoveries, including COVID-19 research today.
Though the health care system may treat these as historical footnotes, the wounds are still felt by many in Black communities.
Other forms of mistreatment, including discrimination for housing, jobs and education, are directly linked to poor health outcomes today. The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that for every white person hospitalized for COVID-19, there are three non-Hispanic Black people hospitalized for COVID-19. In Texas, 16.7 percent of positive COVID-19 tests are from Black people, though they’re 12.3 percent of the population.
These disproportionately high positivity and hospitalization rates call for a concerted effort to promote and prioritize vaccination in Black communities.
What I want to tell Black communities is this: Clinical trials for the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines intentionally recruited a diverse population to study safety and effectiveness in all races and ethnicities. Some historically Black colleges and universities and their surrounding communities also participated in COVID-19 vaccine trials to ensure more adequate representation.
Also, there were many Black physicians and researchers involved in developing the vaccines, like Dr. Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett, a Black immunologist from North Carolina whose team helped develop Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Immunology, was explicit in his praise of Dr. Corbett, saying “The Moderna vaccine you’re going to get was developed by an African American woman.”
The Moderna vaccine prevented COVID-19 symptoms in 94 percent of people. The Pfizer vaccine is also incredibly effective, preventing symptoms in 95 percent of people. Side effects, including pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache or low-grade fever that resolve in a day or two, happen because your body is learning how to defend itself against the virus.
Let’s empower ourselves and our communities by getting vaccinated and encouraging those around us to get vaccinated, too. When the vaccine is available to you, take it.