#CureCommunity: Establishing Medical Trust within the Black Community is Necessary towards Finding a Cure.
In June 2020, The New York Times (“NYT”) reported that America’s Black communities were enduring a “Pandemic Within a Pandemic”.1 As a Black American, summer 2020 was undoubtedly traumatizing. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery (to name a few) were constantly on our minds and in the depths of our heavy hearts. Before summer 2020, I was doing ok, as far as ok a person can get in a pandemic. But, when the stories surrounding each of these murders were brought to light, the small inclinations of a normal day within a pandemic diminished. How am I expected to function when I feel an imminent sense of doom? As cited in that same NYT article, Mike Griffin, a black community organizer in Minneapolis clearly prescribed this situation by stating “I’m just as likely to die from a cop as I am from COVID”.1
As a scientist, I was privy to the mobilization of large-scaled efforts and funds towards characterizing and hopefully someday subduing COVID-19. However, as a Black scientist, I was in a peculiar situation. I knew the level of trust within systemic institutions from the Black community was already at an all-time (but unfortunately not unprecedented) low. I frequently questioned, how am I, a Black woman, going to assure that my community is provided the same opportunities towards a cure; while, as a Scientist, attempt to disprove conspiracy theories pertaining to the virus with scientific facts knowing the fear from which they stem?
In my search on how to manage this internal dilemma, I channeled my frustration, as most of us in the social media age do; by scrolling Twitter. In doing so, I participated in a little social media banter from which I discovered that some people believe Black scientist and healthcare professionals to be unaware of the causation of current medical distrust. I countered by stating, “I will never understand how people assume that we (Black scientists) are unaware of the historical disenfranchisement & misuse within our field. We know! And, you know how we know? Because one of the reasons we undertook this profession was to prevent such atrocities from happening again.” To add historical context, “From 1932 to 1972, three-hundred and ninety-nine (399) Black men from Macon County, Alabama were deliberately denied effective treatment for syphilis in order to document the nature of the disease.”2 It was not until May 16, 1997, 65 years following the start of the study that the United States formally apologized for the “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” to which then President Bill Clinton stated, “The legacy of the study at Tuskegee has reached far and deep, in ways that hurt our progress and divide our nation. We cannot be one America when a whole segment of our nation has no trust in America”.3 The theme of neglect and betrayal within the medical field is also found within the story of Henrietta Lacks, the “Mother of Modern Day Medicine”. She is the origin of the infamous and immortal HeLa cell line, the most common cell line used in medical advancements in cancer, immunology, and now COVID-19.4 “Lacks was a Black woman whose cervical cells were collected and used for profit by biotechnology companies to which Henrietta Lacks consent was not given and the Lacks family were not compensated for”.5
And, there is J. Marion Sims who is labeled “The Father of Modern Gynecology”. However, his medical achievements are tarnished with his torture of African-American women in the pursuit of medical research. From 1846 to 1849, Sims operated on enslaved women without anesthesia.6 One enslaved woman is recorded to have endured thirty (30) excruciating surgeries without the use of anesthesia.6 According to Brynn Holland of History.com, “Sims’s decision to not use anesthesia – or any numbing technique- was based on his misguided belief that Black people didn’t experience pain like white people did.”7 Despite Sims now tainted reputation, we find some of the same ideals lingering within the obstetrics community. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.8 Whereas, public health officials have found that “Basically, Black women are undervalued…When they do present symptoms, they are often dismissed.”8
Many Black biomedical and healthcare professionals know these stories like the back (black) of their hands. Thankfully, most of us internalize and channel it into our mission to educate those unaware of these historical afflictions and remind those cognizant of them that we are here to hopefully prevent such tragedies from happening again. In accordance with that mission, Black healthcare professionals lined up to not only get the vaccine, once the first COVID-19 vaccines were made available, but also post their experiences online in hopes of easing some of the skepticism.9,10
An overall effective cure will eradicate or subdue a particular disease from a majority of the community to which it affects. Therefore, during a pandemic such as COVID-19, clinical recruitment, advancements, and administration must span geography, age, gender, socioeconomic status, and race! Statistically, African-American deaths from COVID-19 are higher than other members of the American population. It is critical that Black people participate in COVID-19 clinical studies.11 However, we must also be given the opportunity to receive the very treatment to which these clinical studies garner. In January 2021, The Texas Tribune reported that “Dallas County axes plan to prioritize vaccinating communities of color after state threatens to slash allocation”.12 Despite these stubborn remnants of racial disparity in healthcare, I am hopeful that we will all once again live a life without COVID-19; however, with many issues facing our country, it will require empathy, facts, and trust.
Written by Kimberly Holloway, Ph.D, Scientist – Content and Omics
Keywords: African Americans, Black community, mistrust, medicine, clinical trials, COVID-19, vaccine, medical injustice, recruitment, research.
1. ‘Pandemic Within a Pandemic’: Coronavirus and Police Brutality Roil Black Communities - The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/07/us/politics/blacks-coronavirus-police-brutality.html.
2. Gamble, V. N. Under the shadow of Tuskegee: African Americans and health care. Am. J. Public Health 87, 1773–1778 (1997).
3. Presidential Apology for the Study at Tuskegee. Encyclopedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/topic/Presidential-Apology-for-the-Study-at-Tuskegee-1369625.
4. Henrietta Lacks | Biography & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henrietta-Lacks.
5. Henrietta Lacks: science must right a historical wrong. Nature 585, 7–7 (2020).
6. Fact check: J. Marion Sims did medical experiments on Black female slaves. https://amp-usatoday-com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/amp.usatoday.com/amp/3202541001?amp_js_v=a6&_gsa=1&usqp=mq331AQHKAFQArABIA%3D%3D#aoh=16115058853822&csi=1&referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com&_tf=From%20%251%24s&share=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.usatoday.com%2Fstory%2Fnews%2Ffactcheck%2F2020%2F06%2F19%2Ffact-check-j-marion-sims-did-medical-experiments-black-female-slaves%2F3202541001%2F.
7. Holland, B. The ‘Father of Modern Gynecology’ Performed Shocking Experiments on Enslaved Women. HISTORY https://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-modern-gynecology-performed-shocking-experiments-on-slaves.
8. Why are black women at such high risk of dying from pregnancy complications? www.heart.org https://www.heart.org/en/news/2019/02/20/why-are-black-women-at-such-high-risk-of-dying-from-pregnancy-complications.
9. ‘You Can’t Treat If You Can’t Empathize’: Black Doctors Tackle Vaccine Hesitancy. NPR.org https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/01/19/956015308/you-cant-treat-if-you-cant-empathize-black-doctors-tackle-vaccine-hesitancy.
10. Doctor sees ‘slaughter of our people’ if African Americans avoid vaccine. al https://www.al.com/opinion/2021/01/johnson-black-doctor-shares-vaccine-experience-sees-slaughter-of-our-people-if-avoided.html (2021).
11. Ferdinand, K. C. & Nasser, S. A. African-American COVID-19 Mortality: A Sentinel Event. J. Am. Coll. Cardiol.75, 2746–2748 (2020).
12. Garnham, E. P. and J. P. Dallas County axes plan to prioritize vaccinating communities of color after state threatens to slash allocation. The Texas Tribune https://www.texastribune.org/2021/01/20/dallas-vaccine-plan-communities-of-color/ (2021).