Rochelle Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national public health agency, is under fire after tweeting an announcement that offended many on Black Twitter.
The director wanted to share news about the federal commemoration of the Tuskegee Experiment coming to an end but used language that some construed as whitewashing the vile government-funded experiment.
On Tuesday, Nov. 29, Walensky took to social media to promote a CDC event acknowledging the end of the 40-year study that tricked over 600 Black men into living with syphilis for the U.S. government’s research. Some felt the statement was clumsy and inferred that the victims voluntarily “sacrificed” for the advancement of science.
She tweeted, “I will be joined by colleagues & #PublicHealth leaders as we honor the 623 African American men, their suffering & sacrifice, and our commitment to ethical research and practice.”
Twitter erupted with people blasting her as misrepresenting one of the nation’s most horrible crimes against Black people in the 20th century.
Fayetteville Observer columnist Myron B. Pitts tweeted, “‘Sacrifice’ is not the right word. They were lied to. ‘Suffering’ is correct.”
Dr. Denise Dewald commented saying, “Imagine honoring Dr. Mengele’s victims for their ‘sacrifice.’ You might want to delete this tweet and express it more appropriately.”
“That’s kinda like saying the doctors who conducted the Tuskegee Experiment meant well,” MJ Gray tweeted.
“A sacrifice is something one willingly does,” The Journey Jeep tweeted. “Sacrificed, such as those forced to partake in the Tuskegee EXPERIMENT, is something altogether different!”
Walensky did not take down her tweet, but posted a follow-up message about the event, saying, “I joined many to reflect on the untreated syphilis study at Tuskegee.”
“We honored the 623 African American men who were subjects of the study and acknowledged their pain & that of their families,” she wrote. “Their legacy lives on today – and their stories & history must never be forgotten.”
The Macon County, Alabama, men in the experiment were never told they were not being treated for their conditions but were actually under watch for scientists to study the progression of syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, if left untreated.
According to the CDC, the original name of the experiment was called Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male and is now referred to as the USPHS Syphilis Study at Tuskegee.
The website states, “The study initially involved 600 Black men – 399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease,” however, in the end, more men were included.
Those who participated in the study, which was conducted with the cooperation of Black medical professionals at the Tuskegee Institute HBCU, never consented to the syphilis research to be conducted and data collected as the men were “told they were being treated for ‘bad blood,’ a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue.”
The government offered the men free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance to participate in the study for four decades, ranging from 1932 to 1972, after a whistleblower leaked that the men were unaware, according to Newsweek.
To complicate Walensky’s comment about the country’s “commitment to ethical research and practice,” penicillin, a drug used to treat syphilis, became available and was widely used by 1943, but researchers refused to administer it to those in the study, even to those whose health went in decline because of the disease.
Informed consent in medical studies is one enduring legacy of the Tuskegee study.
Many say this study, the extraction of miracle cells from Henrietta Lacks, and the practices of women during slavery to further gynecological research are but a few reasons why Black people remain distrustful of American medical practices — a psychological stain that stops many from going to the doctors for health checkups and wellness concerns, the Commonwealth Fund reports.
The Equal Justice Initiative said 128 participants died of syphilis or related complications. It also revealed 40 of their wives were infected with the disease and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis. All of this has been maintained in CDC records and was stopped because Associated Press journalist Jean Heller broke the story and shook the medical world on July 25, 1972.
Pressure from the public was the catalyst of the “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” being shut down three months later.
The men filed a lawsuit that ended in the government reaching a $9 million settlement for them and their estates.
On May 16, 1997, President Bill Clinton formally apologized for the nation’s role in the study.
He said, “The eight men who are survivors of the syphilis study at Tuskegee are a living link to a time not so very long ago that many Americans would prefer not to remember, but we dare not forget. It was a time when our nation failed to live up to its ideals when our nation broke the trust with our people that is the very foundation of our democracy.”
“It is not only in remembering that shameful past that we can make amends and repair our nation, but it is in remembering that past that we can build a better present and a better future,” he said. “And without remembering it, we cannot make amends and we cannot go forward.”
“Medical people are supposed to help when we need care, but even once a cure was discovered, they were denied help, and they were lied to by their government. Our government is supposed to protect the rights of its citizens; their rights were trampled upon. Forty years, hundreds of men betrayed, along with their wives and children,” he said.
The apology continued, saying, “No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish. What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”
Adding, “The American people are sorry – for the loss, for the years of hurt. You did nothing wrong, but you were grievously wronged.”