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With COVID-19 vaccine rollout, another reckoning with racism in American medicine

James McGinnis
Bucks County Courier Times

Henrietta Lacks had immortal cells that scientists used for decades without her knowledge and consent.

The Black mother from Baltimore was never told about the experiments used in the development of the vaccines and countless other products, patents and studies around the world.

Her story is just one chapter in a rarely discussed history of race in medicine in America. After centuries of mistreatment, the resulting mistrust of science could now keep millions of Blacks, Latinos and other minorities in America from getting vaccines.

“If you don’t trust your doctor, you are not going to go, and that’s a cultural norm in the Black community,” said Dr. Ala Stanford, a pediatric surgeon from Jenkintown and founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.

Doctors and scientists have a history of mistreating minorities in the U.S. (Left) The "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male" continued from 1932 and 1972. (Right) Henrietta Lack's cells were used in medical studies without her knowledge.

Unethical treatment of minorities extends back more than three centuries. Slaves were used in surgical experiments before the Civil War. The U.S. Public Health System ran a "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male" from 1932 and 1972.

Minorities were often left out of clinical drug trials for new medications. In 1993, Congress passed a law requiring “inclusion of women and racial and ethnic groups” in taxpayer-funded research. Before that time, white males were considered the “prototype of the human research subject.”

More:Pa hospitals report few side effects in first employees vaccinated against COVID-19

More:Bucks County schools push to address systemic racism

In Bensalem, cardiovascular nurse Theresa Conejo is working to improve messaging on the safety of the coronavirus vaccine to Black and Latino communities.

“As a board member of the Bucks County YWCA that serves many minorities, I am concerned by the high rate of COVID in our communities of color,” said Conejo. “Polling suggests that many people in the Latinx community are less likely to get the vaccine. There is a lack of public service announcements in Spanish here in Bucks County. So it will be up to the medical community, organizations and key leaders to get the correct facts out to people.”

The coronavirus is believed to be more deadly for those with certain medical conditions. Among them are diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity. Blacks are historically at higher risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Latino and Hispanic Americans are historically at a higher risk for diabetes and obesity.

At the same time, tracking racial disparities is tough because such information is sometimes missing from many state case counts. For example, the race and ethnicity was listed as “unknown” for more than 250,000 positive test cases on the Pennsylvania COVID-19 Data Dashboard from the state Department of Health.

The race and ethnicity of the patients was listed for 14,718 Pennsylvanians who died, as of Monday. Of those, 19% were identified as Asian, Black or more than one race.

By comparison, Pennsylvania was 81% white, 12% black and 7% Hispanic or Latino, according to the latest available 2019 U.S. Census.

Dr. Ala Stanford, a pediatric surgeon at Abington-Jefferson Health, responds to emails as she sits in the van while her team works on testing patients for COVID-19 Tuesday, May 19, at Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Philadelphia. Stanford said some in the Black community do not trust the health care system, which could complicate vaccination efforts.

In Philadelphia, the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium operates a mobile testing lab for the virus, and Stanford advocates through historically black churches for vaccination.

“So many of the health disparities that exist in the African American community are predicated on that mistrust from the health care system,” Stanford said. “The health care system has been untrustworthy. For myself and for so many African Americans, this is our reality.”

Lacks' family only learned that her cells had been used in countless experiments after they were contacted by journalist Rebecca Skloot, as documented in the 2010 book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."

Since that time, Lacks' family has been consulted on the use of her cell line in some cases of medical research.

Among them, Henrietta's cell line has been used in studies of coronaviruses.

Contact reporter James McGinnis at jmcginnis@couriertimes.com