Legacy of Medical Racism Haunts Small Alabama Community Suffering from TB Outbreak

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Doctor injects test subject with placebo as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
Doctor injects test subject with placebo as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

Several news outlets are reporting that America’s history of medical racism is responsible for a tuberculosis outbreak in a small Southern town.

According to ThinkProgress, Marion, Alabama, has been hit with a rash of cases of tuberculosis (TB.) The town has reported 253 cases of tuberculosis per 100,000 people, a rate even worse than some developing countries like Kenya and Bangladesh. The statewide rate of TB in Alabama is 2.8.

However, ThinkProgress says tuberculosis has flourished in Marion because many of the Black residents have refused to get screened. Black people, especially the older ones, are generally suspicious of medical professionals anyway, but the people of Marion have good reason to distrust doctors.

Marion is just two hours from Tuskegee, the site of an infamous medical experiment that ran from 1932 to 1972. Poor Black sharecroppers were recruited for a medical study of syphilis. They were told they would receive free healthcare and free burials. However, they were part of a secret experiment to study what would happen if the disease went untreated. Instead of receiving penicillin, the researchers gave the men placebos.

John Charles Cutler, one of the doctors behind the Tuskegee experiment, also carried out secret medical research in Guatemala where soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners and mental health patients were deliberately infected with sexually transmitted diseases to study the effects. The U.S. government formally apologized for the Guatemala experiments in 2010. In 1997, President Bill Clinton apologized for the Tuskegee experiment and hosted a White House ceremony for the survivors.

The Tuskegee experiment is still talked about in Black homes and has left some Black people suspicious of medical professionals. Marion residents are still resentful of the government.

“There is a mistrust of government medicine because of Tuskegee,” said Dr. R. Allen Perkins, former president of the Alabama Rural Health Association, in a New York Times article. “It dates back to that. We haven’t dealt with the damage of Tuskegee in this state at any meaningful level.”

The situation is so bad that the state of Alabama is offering Marion residents money. Twenty dollars for a screening, $20 if they come back for the results, and $20 for a chest x-ray.  They can also get $100 for finishing the treatment. However, the people of Marion should be worried about TB. According to the World Health Organization, TB kills more people than HIV/AIDS. WHO recorded 1.5 million TB-related deaths in 2014. The situation is being compounded by new drug-resistant strains of the disease.

“Drug-resistant tuberculosis knows no borders,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a Huffington Post interview. “We risk turning the clock back on antibiotics and making it very difficult for us to stop tuberculosis from spreading around the world and in this country if we don’t improve our control efforts.”

According to ThinkProgress, 20 mostly black Marion residents have been diagnosed with TB and three people have died from the disease.

Marion residents are beginning to realize they are in the midst of a public health crisis and slowly coming forward to be tested. Alabama Public Radio said Bennie Royster attended a town hall meeting about the crisis and is considering getting tested for tuberculosis.

“Listening at them tonight, I’m less afraid,” Royster said. “And if I were to come down with TB, because I asked this question about the privacy act like they said because we’ve had so many people that have already died in Perry County, I wish I knew the person. Because if I knew the person, then I know to go and be tested.”

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