Medical Racism: What Was the Tuskegee Experiment?

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With the rollout of the first COVID-19 vaccine in the US this week, media coverage has been incessant about distrust of our medical industry in the black community. I’ve noticed very few of them actually talk about why. Medical racism. Have you heard of it? It’s been around, it’s an ongoing problem, and it’s coming to light again with the treatment for COVID-19. Let’s talk about a horrific moment in American history, a 1932 experiment called the “Tuskegee Study of Syphilis in the Negro Male”.

Good morning and welcome to the Ben Garves Podcast - a daily show at the intersection of health, activism, and technology. I’m your host, Ben Garves.

The best explanation of medical racism I’ve found is on the YWCA website. They write:

“Medical racism is the systematic and wide-spread racism against people of color within the medical system. It includes both the racism in our society that makes Black people less healthy, the disparity in health coverage by race, and the biases held by healthcare workers against people of color in their care.”

So, in 1932, the Tuskegee experiment began with 600 Black men, 399 who tested positive for syphilis, and 201 who didn’t. It failed to tell those men they had syphilis, instead telling all 600 they were being treated for “bad blood”, which was a blanket term for a bunch of issues, like sickle cell anemia. The reality was, these men didn’t receive proper medical treatment of the disease researchers knew they had, and the six-month experiment ended up running for 40 years. It wasn’t until a story from the Associate Press in 1972 brought the study to light that a panel began to investigate. They found the men in the study had been misled and weren’t given enough information to give real informed consent for their treatment.

Here’s an example: penicillin, the antibiotic used to very easily treat syphilis, became widely used in 1947 and was never offered to the study’s test subjects.

That’s dark. It’s terrible. And it’s really just one story in a long list of behaviors in the United States which have fostered mistrust within the Black community. In 1966, Henry K. Beecher published a paper documenting 22 instances of unethical medical research in the New England Journal of Medicine, including Tuskegee.

Blind studies, basically studies where the recipient of a treatment doesn’t know if they’re receiving the treatment or a placebo, are important to proving if a treatment is effective and safe. But we need to ask questions about whether they’re ethical in a situation where we’re testing on a specific race or ethnic background, if we’re testing on a group which has been abused in the past, and if that testing continues when a viable cure is found without adjusting the experiment to inform the doctors, researches, and study participants about what’s going on.

That wraps it up for today. Thanks for listening to the Ben Garves Podcast, at the intersection of health, activism, and technology. Don’t forget, Fitness is for Everyone™.

The CDC has a write up on the Tuskegee study and the work related to it on their website, so I’m putting a link to that in my show notes, which you can find in your podcasting app or on bengarves.com.

The Tuskegee Timeline from CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm

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