Understanding Our Fears of Vaccination

by Pierre Edmonds & John Geis

Cristo Rey St. Martin’s efforts to fight the devastating effects of the pandemic within the surrounding communities offered an unexpected opportunity – the chance to open a discussion about the pervasive fears of vaccination which are impeding the eradication of diseases across the country.

During the month of February, Cristo Rey St. Martin and Jewel-Osco partnered to hold two mass vaccination events, inoculating 2,400 people.

Enter my friend, Pierre Edmonds – Dean of Students at CRSM and Pastor of the Eternal Flame African Methodist Episcopal Church. Dean Edmonds was one of the many CRSM vaccination volunteers. He made it clear that when it was his turn to be vaccinated, he wanted to be photographed, to show the members of his church, his family and his friends that getting the vaccination was safe, and in the best interest of the whole community. This led to our discussion about the problem of anti-vaccination sentiment, which is now rampant in so many segments of the population, including African American communities.

Dean Edmonds’ question was, “why don’t we write an article about it?

I told Dean Edmonds that from the point of view of a white kid from the north side of Chicago, the cause of the current resurgence of the anti-vaccination movement is the infamous and discredited study by former doctor Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield’s 1998 study proposed a connection between the MMR Vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) with an increased incidence of Autism. The study was proven fraudulent, was retracted and Wakefield was stripped of his ability to practice medicine. The damaging effects of that discredited study, however, are still with us. I didn’t know about Pierre Edmonds’ familiarity with a much darker, and sinister event that left many African American communities with a deep, lingering distrust of public health officials and vaccines.

“John, The Tuskegee Experiment is one of a number of reasons that African Americans are hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine.”

In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service, in partnership with the Tuskegee Institute, enrolled 600 Alabama black men into a study that offered free meals and checkups, but never explained that participants would be human guinea pigs in a study designed to withhold medical treatment. In order to track the full progression of syphilis, treatment (penicillin) was withheld, causing hundreds in the study to go blind, insane and die from the preventable disease. The last participant in the infamous study died in 2004.
Despite President Clinton’s official apology and the establishment of the Tuskegee Center for Bioethics, the damage has been far reaching and continues to impact public sentiment, especially in the black community, 89 years later.

“The picture of me getting the vaccine is an opportunity. And I hope what we say here will help dispel these fears. We must separate the sins of the past from good people, doing good science to benefit all of us.”

Amen to that Pastor Edmonds.