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Centuries of medical mistrust lead to vaccine skepticism

Posted at 3:28 PM, Dec 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-17 18:07:59-05

CLEVELAND — The arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine brings much-needed hope to a lot of Americans. But for Black people, it comes with a hearty dose of skepticism.

Richard Starr says despite the studies showing the vaccine’s high efficacy rates, a shot in the arm does not reassure him. He doesn’t get the flu shot either.

“I had the flu shot three times, and three times in my life I had the flu,” he said.

His skepticism is warranted by our nation’s troubled history.

“Historically, terrible things have been done in the confines of science,” said Cleveland Clinic surgeon Dr. Lee Kirksey.

He’s talking about centuries of medical malpractice on black bodies, like the Tuskegee Experiment.

“Those are the stories that we in the African American community have grown up on,” he said of the 40-year test that left Black men infected with syphilis, their symptoms the subject of study.

That trust never recovered.

Dick Perry told News 5 he grew up hearing whispers about Tuskegee, the truth almost too outlandish to believe.

“It was known,” he said, “that there was experimentation on people without their understanding.”

But he saw first-hand what happened with polio.

“Every few years one would hit the town,” he said. “Kids could not play with each other. We couldn’t go swimming all summer long. Everyone was scared to death.”

Relief came in the form of a vaccine.

“They could put just a few drops of the vaccine on a sugar cube,” Peery said. “Then you eat the sugar cube and you’re safe for the rest of your life.”

Now in his 80s, Peery says he embraces that same science today and plans to get the COVID-19 vaccination.

Kirksey explained there’s reason to trust, telling News 5 “there is much greater transparency right now in terms of science.”

But he also recognizes many Black Americans won’t roll up their sleeve to get the shot.

“Until all of us feel comfortable, none of us will feel comfortable.”

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