History leads to vaccine hesitancy in Black communities

by | Mar 5, 2021 | Headlines, News

Black communities are wary of getting the COVID-19 vaccine and one expert said it’s in part because of historical abuses in medical research involving the Black community which built distrust.

“There are many kinds of systemic racism incidents within the healthcare system that leave Black communities mistrustful of the acute care system,” Alison Thompson, professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Dalla Lana School of Public Health located in the University of Toronto’s St. George campus, said.

She said the history of mistrust dates back to the last century.

Fatimah Jackson-Best is the project manager for the Black Health Alliance
Fatimah Jackson-Best is the project manager for the Pathways to Care Project of the Black Health Alliance. She says Black Canadians have to be willing to take part in the clinical trials to have more representation. (Noor Al-Mosawi.)

“The last century set tone,” Thompson said. “There are the Tuskegee Syphilis trials that occurred in the States.”

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which ran from 1932 to 1972, was an experiment the United States Public Health Services (USPHS) started. They performed on African-American men at the Tuskegee University (then called the Tuskegee Institute), blood tests, x-rays and spinal taps of their subjects.

The purpose and goal were to obtain the natural history of untreated syphilis within Black populations. Instead, 128 of the 600 participants died, and others passed syphilis on to their wives and some children. The $10 million class-action lawsuit by the NAACP did little to lower fears.

Black men who participated in the study were told they were receiving free health care and treatment for bad blood from the U.S. federal government. They did not receive any kind of treatment.

Canada had its own trials in the late 19th and 20th centuries when Canada’s federal government operated the “Indian Hospitals” without receiving consent to test vaccinations on Indigenous peoples.

Minority groups have been disproportionately impacted and underrepresented in clinical trials. A 2020 study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found there was a significant lack of diversity in clinical trial populations of BIPOC persons.

The study showed in one COVID-19 test, Black people accounted for 20 per cent of 1,063 people population, while Latin Americans accounted for 11 per cent and Indigenous people made up 0.7 per cent of the group.

The authors reported “trials included sites throughout the United States where Black, Latins, and Native Americans are over represented among people with COVID-19 and related deaths,” but the same groups were substantially underrepresented in the study samples.

Fatimah Jackson-Best, a public health researcher and project manager at the Black Health Alliance in North York, said having diversity in the clinical trials is crucial.

“Moderna is about 10 per cent of their clinical trial population for Blacks,” she said. “That’s a very small amount looking at the representation and overrepresentation within Black communities in COVID-19 cases, it screams the need for Black people to be included in clinical trials.”

Black adults have historically had lower vaccination rates and had concerns surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine.

She said Black Canadians have to be willing to participate in the clinical trials to ensure more representation.

“It’s an issue of mistrust with Black people as we’re overrepresented in COVID-19 cases when it comes to the vaccine there are a lot of inequalities and inequities,” Jackson-Best said.

Toronto recently unveiled the Black Community COVID-19 Response Plan to provide support to Black Torontonians, who are disproportionately affected by and suffering from the virus.

Black scientists who helped develop the plan in December 2020 with the Task Force on Vaccine Equity are hoping to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19 and hospitalization because of the virus.

The new response plan addresses the distrust and vaccine reluctance that Toronto’s Black residents see as a challenge to overcome.

The task force partnered with other community organizations, including the BHA, to host virtual town hall meetings throughout Black History Month and March.

These meetings will focus on “the historical and contemporary issues of trustworthiness,” among other topics concerning the misinformation, conspiracy theories, and mental health problems Black people may face.

“The Black Health Alliance has discussed the need for strategies and ways to address COVID-19 specifically for Black communities,” Jackson-Best said.

Jackson-Best believes because of misinformation concerning COVID-19, asking questions from trusted sources and research can help Black people and other minorities be more trusting in getting the COVID-19 vaccine.