2020 was an incredibly difficult year for all of us. We incurred so much loss and pain, along with health, economic and life changes. For months on end, and now as we enter 2021, we have been forced to adapt daily.
For African Americans, the past year featured additional heavy burdens. Undeniably, the past few months — arguably years — have been extremely divisive. The impact can be felt within the African American community, as the fights for social justice and equity, and for a halt to institutional racism, discriminatory imprisonment and the killings of unarmed African Americans continue.
These are ultimately the questions: In an age in which there is penetrating racism and fights to uphold and honor symbols of bias, why should and how can the African American community trust the idea of COVID-19 vaccinations?
There is long, excruciating history of health tragedies sustained by African Americans. Within the community, there is a palpable distrust of modern medicine that is understandably rooted in events of the past.
The current sentiment toward vaccines and medical treatments was acquired and reinforced over many years, due to the mistreatment of African Americans in the name of science.
There is a valid fear among members of the Black community that they are being experimented on without consent, because this has indeed happened throughout U.S. history. Some examples include the Tuskegee syphilis study, surgical experimentation on enslaved women in the 1800s and injecting radioactive substances into imprisoned men, mostly Black, in Oregon between 1963 and 1971.
The stories passed down are heartbreaking, terrifying and traumatic. Therefore, many African Americans refrain from seeking health care. And when they do, they are more comfortable with a medical professional who looks like them.
It is going to take time, diligence, and a passionate desire to right past wrongs for us to truly move forward and build sustainable trust that will lead to improved health outcomes within the African American community.
To specifically address this moment’s big questions:
Why should we get the COVID-19 vaccine?
Mistrust of the medical community has widened the health care gap between African Americans and others. Unfortunately, African Americans are disproportionately affected by chronic medical conditions — such as hypertension and diabetes — that predispose them to increased health issues and worse outcomes when they get sick.
Part of the disparity in health care can be attributed to the lack of access to care, being uninsured or being underinformed. All of these issues are more common for people with a lower socioeconomic status.
However, we encourage everyone in the Black community to see the COVID-19 vaccine as an opportunity to take control of their own health and to protect themselves and their families. People with diabetes and hypertension can have worse outcomes if they become infected with the novel coronavirus. Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is one way to prevent a serious illness, hospitalization or even death.
Although there is a long history of people being taken advantage of in the name of science, many strides have been taken in recent decades to protect people from this.
In 1974, the National Research Act began adding protections for people involved in research studies. In 1981, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring Institutional Review Boards at research institutions. These review boards evaluate each research study, how it will be performed and who will be a participant — all to ensure it is safe.
The review boards protect people in research trials from being taken advantage of, to prevent events like the Tuskegee study and other experiments we have mentioned from happening again.
With the recent approval of COVID-19 vaccines, we encourage everyone in the Black community to get vaccinated.
What should make us trust that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe?
Although the COVID-19 vaccines are “new,” the science behind them has been studied for over 20 years. Per an NBC News article published recently, the application of mRNA vaccines to the COVID-19 virus is based on numerous years of research.
Please understand that no shortcuts were taken in the evaluation of safety and efficacy. These vaccines went through the same process that other vaccines do.
Second, these vaccines have a high efficacy rate. Both vaccines currently available are over 90% effective at preventing a COVID-19 infection. Also, if you do happen to get the virus, the effects would be milder.
The vaccine will not give you the virus or alter your DNA or genetics.
The common side effects of a vaccination shot might include pain and swelling of the arm in which you get the shot, plus symptoms such as fever, chills, fatigue or headache. These are normal signs that your body is building protection.
Notably, one of the two currently available COVID-19 vaccines was developed by an African American woman, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett.
So let’s get vaccinated, get healthy and keep trying to improve our health. We will beat COVID-19 together — and keep fighting injustice and health care disparities.
Janet Barngetuny, director of pharmacy, RN, and Kenyetta Givans, M.D., work at Lancaster Health Center.