Who's Afraid of a Little AIDS Vaccine?
Thanks to a recent scientific discovery, an inoculation that could kill HIV is within our reach. But will our distrust of the medical community keep us from welcoming it with open arms?
And I really can't blame anyone for harboring any serious doubt. While our unfortunate suspicion of down-low men is largely based on homophobia rather than anything tangible, our deep-seated paranoia that the medical establishment is out to get us is based on actual events. Events with an extensive paper trail.
One word: Tuskegee.
And unfortunately, complete disregard for black people's lives didn't stop or start with those experiments. In her 2007 book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present, Harriet Washington brilliantly chronicles how, for centuries, black people were poked, prodded and sterilized and underwent surgery against their will -- all in the name of ''science.''And while these gross acts of inhumanity occurred some time ago, the fear spawned from them hasn't subsided. Why should it? We are still being mistreated. In 2008 The New England Journal of Medicine published a report citing that prejudice and stereotyping play a significant role in how white health-care providers deal with African-American patients.
Our intense skepticism is not a well-guarded secret. The medical community knows that their past and current behavior plays a factor in why so many of us are disinterested in their research. Over the years, dozens of studies have been conducted, and regardless of the issue -- cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS or diabetes -- our indifference mainly points to our tumultuous past. (And let's not forget what happened to Henrietta Lacks and her cancer cells.)
Even I am not exempt. Despite being very health literate, having faith in my own doctors and having interviewed dozens of trusted black AIDS experts who have assured me that clinical trials are relatively safe, the thought of being in one makes me uneasy. No matter how hard I try, I can't drown out that instinctual voice in the back of my head that says, ''Girl, please. Not in a million years.''
Unfortunately, for many, this mistrust isn't confined to feeling queasy about a clinical trial. We all know people who won't take lifesaving medicine or who ignore severe symptoms for months rather than get them checked out in a timely fashion. And we have all heard someone say that AIDS is a government plot created to kill black people and that there is a cure, but only Magic has it.
These attitudes, which are aimed to ''protect'' us, really only harm us. Statistically, African Americans are more likely to disproportionately suffer from a range of health issues, less likely to access health-related information or get screened for diseases. And while systematic poverty and a fragmented health-care system can be blamed, some of that is our own doing.
At some point, we have to accept that in order for us to be well, we have to embrace science.