Family of Man Who Was in Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment Say They Will Take COVID-19 Vaccine

Illustration for article titled Family of Man Who Was in Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment Say They Will Take COVID-19 Vaccine
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The relatives of one of the men who were in the Tuskegee syphilis study say they will take the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they can get it.

During the study, which researchers from the Public Health Service and Tuskegee Health Institute ran from 1932 to 1972, hundreds of Black men who were told they would receive treatment for syphilis were instead left deliberately untreated and kept in the dark when penicillin became available as a remedy for the disease.

The infamous experiment has frequently—and arguably erroneously—been referenced by Black people this year arguing against taking the recently developed COVID-19 vaccines.

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But Lille Tyson Head and Carmen Head Thorton, the daughter and granddaughter of one of the men who was involved in the experiment, say it shouldn’t be used as a reason to forgo protection against the coronavirus.

“The men in the study didn’t get a vaccine. You are comparing men not getting a vaccine to a vaccine that is available,” Head said in an interview with Zora magazine this week. “How can you compare not having something to the opportunity to have something?”

Head’s father, Freddie Lee Tyson, found out decades after participating in the study that researchers had deliberately kept him from being treated. 

Head added that she would take the COVID-19 vaccine “without hesitation” as soon as it becomes available to her, reports ABC News.

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Thorton, meanwhile, pointed out that many of the misconceptions people have about what actually happened in the study—like the claim that participants where injected with syphilis by the government—are fueled by the Black community having a degree of suspicion in the health system that isn’t wholly unjustified.

“History has not been kind to African Americans,” Thornton said. “It has not been kind, and because of misperceptions that are connected to what happened in the study … I think it helps to grow mistrust, and that’s one of the things that we deal with.”

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The two women helped launch the Voices for Our Father’s Legacy Foundation in 2014, in part to promote and advocate for more ethical treatment amid worsening disparities in America’s health care.

Though people continue to argue over whether or not they will take the COVID-19 vaccines that have recently become available, the first doses of those developed by Pfizer and Moderna only began going out to front line workers and members of government in the U.S. this week. Officials have said that it likely won’t be until spring 2021, at the earliest, that members of the general public are able to get access to a vaccine.

Writer, speaker, finesser, and a fly dresser. Jamaican-American currently chilling in Chicago.

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Dr Emilio Lizardo

Thorton, meanwhile, pointed out that many of the misconceptions people have about what actually happened in the study—like the claim that participants where injected with syphilis by the government—are fueled by the Black community having a degree of suspicion in the health system that isn’t wholly unjustified.

To be clear, what happened was that black men got infected with syphilis on their own, but then were allowed to enroll in a study to observe them and see what happened. It started before penicillin was available as a treatment, but continued for decades after penicillin became available, but was not offered to the men and that was the horrible part. It was extremely racist because it was studying only black men.

Here is the CDC’s FAQ page about it.