African-Americans, Vaccines and a History of Suspicion

Doctor vaccinating girl in office. Photo credit: LWA/Dann Tardif

A good parent is not sure what to believe. On one side, doctors tell us vaccinations are safe and necessary for our children. They’ve been in existence for hundreds of years, most people get them and they are credited with eradicating diseases and saving lives.

On the other side are numerous horror stories involving vaccinated children like that of Harvard-educated attorney George Fatheree, who was pressured by a pediatrician to resume vaccination despite seizures his infant, Clayton, experienced after a previous round of vaccines. That night, Clayton’s seizures returned and he stopped speaking for three years. He grew into a severely disabled teen, suffering dozens of seizures a day. Because of similar vaccine-related injuries and deaths, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program — a fund under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set up to shield vaccine manufacturers from liability — has paid out over $3.6 billion in compensation to affected families.

Given such occurrences, coupled with a dark history of government-backed medical atrocities enacted upon the Black community, African-American parents are often unsure what to think about vaccination. But, whatever one believes, when it comes to injecting potentially harmful materials into our children — among vaccine ingredients listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are known neurotoxins aluminum and formaldehyde, along with human fetal tissue — parents need to be as informed as possible.

“Informed consent means that you have the human right to be fully informed about the benefits and risks of vaccines and to be allowed to make a decision without being coerced, harassed or punished,” says Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center, a nonprofit she co-founded with parents of vaccine-injured children in 1982. Author of the seminal 1985 text, “DPT: A Shot in the Dark,” Fisher explains vaccines are “pharmaceutical products that carry an inherent risk of injury or death that can be greater for some people than others.”

Some focus on what they believe to be a bigger picture. “Vaccinations are great advances,” says Harriet A. Washington, a medical ethicist, researcher and writer who has held numerous university fellowships. Washington points to the eradication of serious diseases current generations now take for granted. “Medical innovations are very important,” she contends, especially “considering the very poor health of African-Americans” who “die younger, more quickly and in greater proportions than most from cancer and other infectious diseases.”

Few would dispute the underlying concept of an immune response being generated by exposure to a virus or disease. Accordingly, most who contracted measles or chicken pox as children currently enjoy a natural lifelong immunity to these illnesses and others. However, critics contend this natural immunity is far different from the unnatural process of vaccination in place today.

“You cannot put adjuvants — which you know are neurotoxins such as mercury, aluminum or a carcinogen like formaldehyde — into these vaccines and then inject them into these little bodies and think it’s not going to have any effects,” says Dr. Nancy Turner Banks, a Harvard Medical School graduate and former director of outpatient gynecology at North General Hospital in Harlem, N.Y. The real question, says Banks, is “not if vaccines are safe, but if the ingredients they put in vaccines are safe.”

A growing number of medical professionals, parents and researchers are voicing concerns over such ingredients and what they believe to be a connection with soaring rates of autism. In the 1980s, notes Banks, when “there were only 10 vaccines” on the schedule, the autism rate was 1 in 10,000 children. But, after the 1986 passage of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act shielding profit-minded vaccine makers from liability, the numbers rose to the current schedule of 69 vaccinations from birth to age 18 and an autism rate of 1 in 50.

Last July, upon educating herself on vaccines and potential links to autism and learning disabilities, Dr. Rachael Ross — family physician, Ph.D and co-host of Emmy Award-winning TV show, “The Doctors” — issued a heartfelt apology to “any children and parents that I have unknowingly harmed.” As a Black physician with a Black patient base, wrote Ross, “I am very concerned and very sorry.” With what “I now know, I cannot support mandatory vaccines for children.” Parents, insisted Ross, “have to have the right to choose.”

Such concerns are not inconsistent with a recent Yale University study linking vaccines to mental disorders. However, some feel such linkages to autism and other disorders are misguided.

“Autism is a very complex neurodevelopmental disability and we do not yet know exactly what causes it,” wrote Dr. Adiaha I.A. Spinks-Franklin, in an online response at A developmental behavioral pediatrician in the Meyer Center for Developmental Pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital, Spinks-Franklin went on to stress, “However, we are certain it is not vaccines.”

Undoubtedly, there are many sides to the debate given most medical professionals are neither for nor against all vaccines. But, in America today, a healthy debate is not taking place. Medical professionals who merely question the existing schedule risk reputation, career and are branded “quacks” in Internet posts and press. Because the mainstream media in this country, says Fisher, is “very much influenced by the pharmaceutical companies who advertise” in their space, “they characterize it as either you are against all vaccines or you are for all vaccines.” Not true, since most “want to use some of the vaccines or a different schedule,” yet are “being forced into using all the vaccines or are being called ‘anti-vaccine’ because they simply want to make informed choices.”

Many have been informed by the well-known story of vaccination. In 1796, Edward Jenner transferred pus from cowpox blisters into the hand incisions of an 8-year old boy who subsequently came down with a slight fever. Jenner later gave the boy a smallpox inoculation that should have produced a case of the disease but failed to. He repeated the process, yet the boy remained unaffected. It would catch on and countries would eventually subdue the terrifying scourge of smallpox, including the U.S., which, according to CDC and World Health Organization data, suffered an average of 1528 deaths per year from the disease at the turn of the 20th century.

However, some have challenged this seldom-questioned account as just that — a story and an inaccurate one. “Dissolving Illusions: Disease, Vaccines, and the Forgotten History” was penned by Dr. Suzanne Humphries after being reprimanded for questioning the vaccination of her seriously ill hospital patients even though the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services also advises against this. Upon combing Western epidemiological data, Humphries found the feel-good story she’d been told in medical school regarding smallpox eradication was unsupported and its 19th-century eradication was due to isolation and sanitation, not vaccination. Her findings are exemplified by the well-known account of the town of Leicester in England that, in the 1870s, suffered soaring rates of smallpox despite established mandatory vaccination for it and surrounding areas. Citizen protests ended mandatory vaccines despite dire predictions from health officials of increasing disease, death and the endangerment of surrounding territories. Using a vigorous process of quarantine and sanitation with minimal vaccination, smallpox infections plummeted to a regional low, while adjacent towns with mandatory vaccinations remained high. The process became well-established in the medical literature as “the Leicester Method.”

Similar misconceptions shroud the polio vaccine. In May 1960, an expert panel was convened for the Illinois State Medical Society by medical professionals concerned with how misinformation promoting the success and safety of the polio vaccine was being fed to the public despite evidence to the contrary. Not only did the panel document the reclassification and rapid decline of paralytic polio prior to the 1955 vaccine by Jonas Salk, it presented data refuting the effectiveness of the Salk vaccine and showing how the disease spread during its administration. “In the fall of 1955,” commented panel moderator Dr. Herbert Ratner, the U.S. Public Health Service “predicted that by 1957 there would be less than 100 cases of paralytic polio in the United States. Four years and 300 million doses of Salk vaccine later, we had, in 1959, approximately 6000 cases of paralytic polio, 1000 in persons who had received three or more shots of Salk vaccine.”

By the 1970s, what had also spread was a justifiable mistrust of the U.S. Public Health Service, particularly among African-Americans. While many know of the four-decade Tuskegee syphilis experiments brought to light in 1972, less know that 32 states with federal support coerced the sterilization of tens of thousands of unwitting African-Americans and immigrants between 1909 and 1981.

Such insidious mass medical activities did not end there. Between 1989 and 1991, over 1,500 African-American and Latino babies in Los Angeles were given the Edmonston-Zagreb measles vaccine previously implicated in an increased death rate among African and Haitian infants. The CDC later admitted the Los Angeles infants were injected with this experimental vaccination without their parents’ knowledge. And three years ago, in 2014, senior CDC scientist Dr. William Thompson admitted he and co-authors intentionally omitted data from a 2004 MMR vaccine study based in Atlanta showing Black babies were three times more likely to develop regressive autism if given the vaccine before the age of 3. Thompson shared thousands of relevant CDC documents with Dr. Brian Hooker and Florida congressman Bill Posey who, on July 29, 2015, plead for a congressional investigation into CDC MMR research fraud.

“I think, like many African-Americans, I had heard my whole life the belief that our fear of the medical system was unjustified,” says Washington, noting “when people discussed abuses committed upon them or their family members in the past, the almost unanimous response was, ‘Oh, that’s some myth that never happened.'” Washington wrote the award-winning 2007 book, “Medical Apartheid,” “partly because I didn’t want anyone to ever be able to refer to these events as ‘mythical’ again” and partly because the “profound silence there was about the unethical treatment of African-Americans.”

That said, Washington clarifies her support for the current process of vaccination. “We should not reject vaccines,” she says, insisting the current schedule, outside of a few exceptions, is both “reasonable and necessary.” Washington cites the medical aspect of “herd immunity. If you have a child that has not been protected by a vaccination, in most parts of the country, that child will be okay because other children are protected” thereby limiting exposure. “The problem happens when too many people choose not to vaccinate their children. In that case, you lose the herd immunity and now you have a lot of children who are vulnerable.”

Others see it differently. In a recent interview, board-certified pediatrician Dr. Larry Palevsky stated “herd immunity in theory is based on an active disease and we know that, despite what we’re taught, vaccination does not mimic the natural disease.” So, continued Palevsky, “we cannot use the same model of herd immunity in a natural disease in the vaccination policy. But, unfortunately, we do use it, even though “it doesn’t have scientific backing.”

Still, what looms larger than any debate over immunity is the ongoing issue of trust — or lack thereof — between Black Americans, the American medical establishment and the profit-thirsty pharmaceutical companies that dominate.

“What’s interesting to me is that people always ask about the distrust of African-Americans regarding the medical community,” says Washington, noting “in my opinion, they are asking the wrong question. The distrust of African-Americans is only half of the equation.” The other half, she offers, is “the fact the American medical system is untrustworthy. You can’t trust something that is untrustworthy.”

It’s very important to acknowledge that, continues Washington, because “if you only talk about the fear and the reaction of African-Americans, you leave the impression the problem resides with African-Americans.”

“It doesn’t,” she adds. “It resides in the system.”


Back to top