In this 1950’s photo released by the National Archives, men included in a syphilis study pose for a photo in Tuskegee, Ala. For 40 years starting in 1932, medical workers in the segregated South withheld treatment for unsuspecting men infected with a sexually transmitted disease simply so doctors could track the ravages of the horrid illness and dissect their bodies afterward. It was finally exposed in 1972. (National Archives via AP)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor

As federal leaders and many medical practitioners emphasize the importance and benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine, millions all around the world are advocating against the quickly created treatment to the pandemic and warning against potential dangers in taking the various injections.  While some people are simply worried about the COVID-19 vaccine doses circulating, there is a growing population of those who advocate against disease preventing shots in general- also known as anti-vaxxers.  With federally led, racially charged medical failures, such as the Tuskegee Experiment and icons dying after recently receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, Black anti-vaxxers are speaking up in a major way to dissuade people from getting injected with a shot doctors say can prevent hospitalizations and save lives.

According to Medical News Today an anti-vaxxer refers to those who “disagree with the use of vaccines for a variety of reasons;” while some view vaccines “unsafe” others look at the injections as an “infringement on their human rights.”  

“I believe an anti vaxxer is someone who doesn’t believe in putting a bunch of items in your body or blood stream that you either haven’t researched or, if it has a side effect, the people who administered it or came up with can’t be sued or are liable if something happens to you,” James Wilson told the AFRO.  “I would call myself anti-needle unless it’s a tattoo.”

While it is not clear just how much of the world’s population preaches the dangers of vaccinations, Lancet Digital Health recently reported that 31 million people follow anti-vaxxer groups on Facebook and estimates that social media platforms make about $1 billion in advertising for anti-vaxx content.  

Anti-vaxxers are not a new part of culture.  In the 18th century, anti-vaxxers came in the form of religious leaders calling vaccines the “devil’s work,” and in the 19th and 20th centuries, the issue became about human rights. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), some of the common misconceptions about vaccines include: that diseases were already declining when the vaccines were created, not all vaccine batches are safe, vaccines cause many harmful effects and other illnesses and  administering vaccines to children can cause major side effects and health challenges. 

The current arguments many anti-vaxxers still stand on, root from a 1998 article published in The Lancet, by a former doctor, Andrew Wakefield, who tied vaccines to children diagnosed with autism. However, Wakefield’s original research proved faulty and got him in a lot of trouble.  In 2004, Lancet withdrew the article after finding major issues with the research, later the British Medical Journal found Wakefield guilty of deliberate fraud and the U.K.’s General Medical Council revoked his medical license.

Despite debunking Wakefield’s research, Black Americans have heightened vaccine concerns after the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and U.S. The Public Health Service (PHS) used Black bodies as lab rats in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study for 40 years.  In what was supposed to be a six-month study, 399 men had latent syphilis and were not told of their diagnosis, and 201 others were not infected.  These 600 participants were told they would receive free medical care for participating in the study, and while they thought they were being treated, the patients were actually administered placebos and ineffective treatments.  Further, 15 years into the study, penicillin was approved to treat syphilis, but with the lack of true treatment 128 participants died and many families and generations were seriously affected by the deceitful, racist study. 

With Tuskegee, it is no surprise Black Americans have major mistrust of federally emphasized programming marketed to help them.  After all, much of the information regarding the COVID-19 vaccines come from the CDC, one of the federal organizations that conducted the Tuskegee study.

“If Black folks can remember anything about their history, besides what they hide, I would be very worried- simply because we’ve been test subjects since the beginning of the time,” Wilson said.  “I’m against the vaccine because history has shown us as Black people vaccines have either killed us, given us mental health issues or paralyzed someone.  Especially children growing up.”

Though the side effects Wilson mentioned have not been directly related to vaccines, there have been decimal percentages of patients who have had certain mental health or paralysis challenges unrelated to receiving an injection.  

However, Wilson is not the only person with concerns about the vaccine affecting the health of Black Americans. Even before middleweight champion “Marvelous Marvin” Hagler died on March 13, at 66, professional boxer Thomas Hearns took to social media to encourage people to pray for Hagler after he was hospitalized post receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

“A real true warrior.  Pray for the king and his family… he’s in ICU fighting the after effects of the vaccine,” Hearns captioned an Instagram photo, leading to major anti-vaxxer propaganda filling social media.  

Once Hagler died, there were little details surrounding the cause of death, further causing rumors that the champion’s death was tied to the COVID-19 vaccine, but Hearns took back to social media discouraging anti-vaxx rhetoric.

“Allow us to have our peace,” Hearns wrote on his Instagram story, which is visible to the public for 24 hours. “It’s outrageous to have that in mind during the passing of a King, Legend, Father, Husband and so much more.”  

Later, Hagler‘s website confirmed that the boxer died “of natural causes near his home in New Hampshire,” and did not clarify if it was associated with, or if the champion had even taken the COVID-19 vaccine.

Hagler, however, is not the only Black celebrity whose death was tied to the vaccine due to social media.  Baseball legend Hank Aaron’s last tweet on Jan. 5 encouraged Black Americans to get the COVID-19 vaccine and a little over two weeks later on Jan. 22, he died.  Anti-vaxxers immediately linked Aaron’s last tweet to his death, creating a social media storm associating his passing with the vaccine.

Nurse Marianne Williams administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a woman as a coworker looks on at the county health department in Tuskegee, Ala., Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. The clinic has yet to reach its maximum capacity for immunizing people in the mostly Black city, the site of the infamous “Tuskegee syphilis study,” that ended in 1972. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves

Nonetheless, the CDC does not list death as one of the possible side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine.  Listed side effects include: injection site pain, swelling or redness and overall fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, fever, nausea and chills. Despite scientific evidence that supports the safety of the vaccine, many anti-vaxxers contend that it is unsafe to trust the government agencies that purported the safety of such efforts like Tuskegee.

But what does research prove? Well vaccinations overall seem safe and help lower the spread of disease according to most medical studies.  

This reporter’s friend asked the other day, “You remember, polio?” And when I replied “no’, he said, “Yeah, neither do I, because of a vaccine.”

In the early 1950s, there were 16,000 cases of polio and 1,800 deaths in the U.S. Polio is a highly infectious disease that could lead to paralysis and death, but after widespread vaccination pushes in 1955, numbers lowered tremendously and the last reported polio case in the United States was in 1979.  

Further , a 2020 Cochrane study testing more than 23 million children in over 138 studies, proved that measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (MMRV) vaccines do not result in autism and major harmful health challenges.  According to Cochrane, the analysis showed, “very small risks of fits due to high temperature or fever (febrile seizures) around two weeks after vaccination, and of a condition where blood does not clot normally (idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura) in vaccinated children.”  The study did show, however, that for the most part, these MMRV vaccines are effective in preventing the diseases they were created to ward off.

Finally, Black Americans are dying at a disproportionate rate from COVID-19.  Despite arguably justifiable vaccine concerns and hesitancy, many doctors are emphasizing the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine options (Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson) in comparison to hospitalizations or death related to contracting the novel coronavirus.

“We have to realize as Black people, we also get sick from the coronavirus and we’re dying so we have to weigh the benefits here,” Dr. Sherita Hill-Golden told the AFRO during a Facebook Live show in December.


Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor