TUSKEGEE, Ala (NewsNation Now) — To understand one of the reasons some African Americans don’t trust public health and the COVID-19 vaccine, you have to travel to Tuskegee, Alabama.
Many residents in the area told NewsNation they do not trust the vaccine and will opt not to get it.
The mistrust of doctors, and public health, runs deep in the Alabama city because of what is known as the Tuskegee syphilis study.
The Tuskegee syphilis study went on in the area for decades, from 1932 until 1972. About 600 Black men were part of the experiment run by the United States Public Health Service.
Most of the men had syphilis and were told they were being treated for “bad blood” and getting free healthcare and other incentives such as free meals on examination days.
What they did not know is the government was actually studying how syphilis ravaged their bodies, causing some to go blind, insane and die.
Even when a cure, penicillin, became available, they were prevented from getting it.
“The men continued to have syphilis and were not treated when they had a treatment available…they lied to them. In fact, they effectively kept them from getting treatment,” said Dana Chandler, Tuskegee University historian.
The blood was taken from the men under an oak tree at a Baptist Church right outside the city of Tuskegee.
The men were told the study would last six months, but it instead it went on for forty years.
Once the government lies were exposed in the early 1970s, they sent shockwaves through the region.
“The distrust is not just Tuskegee, but Tuskegee anchors it because it is the most prolific of all of the medical malpractices,” said David Augustin Hodge Sr., Tuskegee University bio ethics professor.
Augustin Hodge says he plans to get the vaccine but even convincing his own family is difficult.
“I can’t find a family member willing to take the vaccine. I have eleven brothers and sisters and over one hundred nieces and nephews,” said Augustin Hodge.
Changing opinions in minority areas will be a challenge – especially in a place like Tuskegee.
“It is disturbing. But that shows you how far the government was willing to go with their experiment. And I wonder if the story hadn’t broke how long would it have gone on,” said Chandler.
The participants from the syphilis study and their families were awarded a ten million dollar settlement from the US government in 1974.
President Bill Clinton publicly apologized for the experiments in 1997.