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  • Writer's pictureAlan S Kolok

May 8 Good Science News #15 Tuskegee

Consider the word Tuskegee. What image does the word conjure up for you? Some, particularly those that live in the south, may think of the small picturesque, suburban town, mid-way between Montgomery, Alabama and Columbus, Georgia. Others, may envision a World War II fighter plane, piloted by one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American pilots who trained at the Tuskegee Institute before engaging in military service.

Still others may think of the tragic Tuskegee Experiment, a study that began in 1932, and in which hundreds of black men, primarily sharecroppers, some with syphilis, others syphilis-free, had their medical history tracked for 40 years. The tragedy of the experiment was that treatment with penicillin was withheld from the men with syphilis for over 30 years, despite its well-publicized effectiveness in combating syphilis. By the time the study ended in 1972, 100 infected men had died of syphilis or related complications, and 40 of their spouses and 19 of their children had been born with the disease. Fast forward to 2021 and the current chapter of our encounter with the Covid-19 virus.

In the United States, vaccines are available that can help to develop nation-wide immunity against Covid, yet some people remain reluctant to be vaccinated. Now, if anyone would have reason to be suspicious of vaccination, it would be the ancestors of the men that had been so unethically used during the Tuskegee Experiment.

But here is where the good news kicks in (this is, after all, a blog related to Science Good News!).

Many of the family members of the men used in the Tuskegee Experiment now feel a responsibility to be vaccinated, to encourage for other black men and women to do likewise. As one ancestor said, some will say, “ ‘Well, you know, look what happened in Tuskegee, and that’s why I’m not going to ... get a vaccine,’ ” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Well, I am getting the vaccine as soon as I can.’ ” Times change. Unethical practices, though not forgotten, can be scrutinized, put into their proper place in history and can be learned from. To avoid the tragedies of the past, it is important to soberly remember them. Community members can do the right thing and get vaccinated. After all, if the ancestors of the men involved in the Tuskegee Experiment can move on and get vaccinated, there is certainly hope for us all.

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