Jan 15, 2021 - Health

Battling Black mistrust of the vaccines

Illustration of a vaccine syringe in the shape of a question mark, hovering over a person in silhouette.
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Civil rights leaders and Black sports icons are publicly taking COVID-19 vaccines to encourage African Americans to follow their example as social media misinformation exploits Black distrust of vaccines.

Why it matters: The coronavirus has disproportionately struck Black, Latino, and Native American communities, and health officials are racing to reassure skeptical populations that the vaccines aren't clandestine experiments, but needed measures to tame the pandemic.  

By the numbers: African Americans have been infected with COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of white Americans, according to the National Urban League.

The backstory: In the early 1930s, the federal government launched the Tuskegee Experiment, which denied Black men in Alabama treatment for syphilis and secretly documented how the disease destroyed their bodies over decades.

  • A U.S. Senate committee in 1972 heard testimony that around 2,000 poor Black women had undergone forced sterilization in previous years stemming from a eugenics-inspired policy.
  • These episodes wrecked African Americans' trust in medical institutions that continues to this day.

What they're saying: "I was proud to get the COVID-19 vaccine earlier today at Morehouse School of Medicine. I hope you do the same!" Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron tweeted earlier this month after getting vaccinated in Georgia.

  • Former UN ambassador and civil rights leader Andrew Young joined Aaron in getting vaccinated.
  • "The truth of it is, Black folk have been living by shots, and just because they did something crazy and murderous and evil back in 1931, we’re still thinking about that. We’ve got to get over that,” Young said.

Yes, but: Robert Kennedy, Jr., the son of the late liberal icon Robert Kennedy, has shared anti-vaccine conspiracy theories to his nearly 800,000 Instagram followers and suggested Black children would especially be vulnerable to any "forced" vaccination plan because of debunked autism links.

  • Nation of Islam member Rizza Islam has posted anti-vaccine memes calling COVID-19 vaccines "America's Wicked Plan" and is selling T-shirts with the words, "Not Another Tuskegee Experiment."
  • Other anti-vaxxers are urging people to buy their hormone pills or hydrogen peroxide products, Center for Countering Digital Hate CEO Imran Ahmed told Axios.

Reality check: Doctors say there is no scientific evidence that drinking hydrogen peroxide yields any health benefits. Large amounts can cause stomach damage or death.

  • Health officials say vaccinations, social distancing, and wearing masks are the keys to getting the pandemic under control.

What’s next: Health officials and civil rights advocates will continue to ask prominent Black figures to take COVID-19 vaccines to battle distrust among African Americans.

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