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Are fear and trauma impeding vaccinations?

A discussion to dispel myths and misconceptions about the Covid-19 vaccine

Jordan Frias
Are fear and trauma impeding vaccinations?
(left to right) Dr. Alice Coombs, Lillie Tyson-Head, Dr. Simone Wildes

Understanding how to move from trauma to triumph is a lesson that Freddie Lee Tyson’s descendants want to pass along, particularly at a time when mistrust in the medical community could keep some fearful people from getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

Tyson was one of more than 600 men who were experimented on in Tuskegee, Alabama, by the U.S. Public Health Service starting in 1932. The story of the study, in which syphilis was allowed to remain untreated in African American study subjects, inspired his family to encourage more Black people to take part in health care professions, and now, to correct the record on what happened and encourage people to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Cory Johnson Program for Post-Traumatic Healing at Roxbury Presbyterian Church invited Tyson’s family to speak on Zoom on Feb. 1 to explain what correlation — if any — exists between what happened at Tuskegee and the mistrust that exists today.

Tyson’s granddaughter, Carmen J. Thornton, said Tyson’s story inspired her to work in public health to bring about change in a field that lacks diversity and has caused intergenerational pain for members of the African American community.

“We know that past traumas can get carried on through generations … it impacts families, it impacts communities, and that’s really what we’re seeing in the hesitancy with this vaccine,” Thornton, who works for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said.

She has participated and worked in some clinical trials, and now she is trying to increase the number of physicians who come from underserved or minority backgrounds.

Thornton’s mother, Lillie Tyson-Head, explained how the family coped with the news that her father was used in the Tuskegee syphilis study and how it took years for them to fully understand what happened.

After learning about the study through an Ebony magazine article and then seeing the CDC confirming the study days later, she said, the family was devastated.

Tyson-Head presides over the Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, which works to preserve the legacies and history of 623 men victimized in the Tuskegee study. Through the foundation, Tyson-Head and her family are working to provide opportunities to other descendants who want to pursue careers in bioethics and health sciences.

Tyson-Head said there is a lot that can be learned from “the long and complicated history of medical research of African Americans without their consent.”

One way to transform the infamous study’s legacy, Tyson-Head said, is by referring to it as the United States Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee / Macon County, Alabama rather than its shorter name. She said the full name accurately reflects who was responsible and those impacted.

Although there wasn’t much known about the syphilis study at first, Tyson-Head said the COVID-19 vaccines are a different story.

After hearing people refer to the COVID-19 vaccine as “poison,” she said, she wanted to set the record straight. For instance, what happened at Tuskegee did not involve injection.

“They were truly abused and victimized in that study, but they were not injected,” she said. Rather, blood samples were taken from participants who either had syphilis or were part a control group. When penicillin became widely used to treat syphilis in 1947, researchers did not offer the medicine to the participants.

Now, Tyson-Head is encouraging those in Black and brown communities who can tolerate the COVID-19 vaccine to consider getting it. It is the only way to end the devastation being felt by the Black community during this pandemic, she said.

Also taking part in the discussion to dispel myths and misconceptions about the vaccine were Dr. Simone Wildes, an infectious disease physician, and Dr. Alice Coombs, an anesthesiologist. Both have worked at South Shore Hospital in South Weymouth, Massachusetts.

Wildes noted that virus mutants or variants are common, and more studies are needed to better understand them. But she said the good news is that the current vaccines are effective against these variants.

The technology used to develop these vaccines may be new, Wildes said, but experts have been working on it for many years.

And although it’s true the second dose can cause the mild short-lived side effects to last a little longer than the first dose, it’s just a sign that your body is responding well to the vaccine.

Coombs, who works at the Virginia Commonwealth University Hospital, said at one point she saw all the African American patients infected with the COVID-19 on ventilators.

The best way to prevent the disease from spreading is to get vaccinated, she said.

“The choice to take the vaccine is better than not to take the vaccine, because it’s not just your atmosphere, it’s also what you actually transmit to other people as well,” she said.

COVID 19, Tuskegee, vaccinations

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