RACIST histories have long bedevilled health systems around the world, creating understandable distrust of medicine in some people from minority groups.
I’ve written before about exploitative, in some cases abusive, past research conducted on Indigenous people in Australia.
In the US, the roll-call of shame includes the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment that, over a 40-year period from 1932 to 1972, denied hundreds of poor black sharecroppers medical treatment in order to study the natural progression of the disease.
The denial of treatment to these men, most of whom were illiterate and were told only that they were suffering from “bad blood”, continued even after the antibiotics that could have cured them became available in the 1940s.
Exploitation on that scale casts a long shadow. It’s hardly surprising African Americans might remain suspicious of health authorities.
Recently, that distrust has been seized on by antivaccination activists as a means of dissuading African Americans from participating in vaccination against COVID-19 and other diseases.
African Americans already experience poorer health outcomes than other population groups in the US. They also have a disproportionate risk of dying if they contract COVID-19.
But that hasn’t stopped an organisation with the misleading name of Children’s Health Defense (CHD) from releasing a “documentary” designed to discourage African Americans from being vaccinated against COVID-19 by portraying vaccines as a resurgence of 1930s-style eugenicist attacks on black people.
The film, Medical racism: the new apartheid, also recycles the disproven link between childhood vaccines and autism, while misrepresenting data to suggest the effects are particularly harmful for African American children.
Producers allegedly talked some researchers into participating without revealing the film’s antivaccine agenda.
“We were talking about issues of racism and experimentation, and they seemed to be handled appropriately,” Professor Naomi Rogers, a medical historian at Yale, told NPR.
It wasn’t until she saw the film in March that she realised how she had been deceived.
“I was naïve, certainly, in assuming that this was actually a documentary, which I would say it is not,” she says now. “I think that it is an advocacy piece for anti-vaxxers. I’m still very angry. I feel that I was used.”
The mastermind behind Children’s Health Defense is Robert F Kennedy Jr, nephew of President John Kennedy, and son of US Attorney General and presidential aspirant Robert Kennedy. A Harvard-educated environmental lawyer, Kennedy has a long-standing record of standing against big polluters.
For more than a decade now, though, his advocacy has shifted to exposing what he sees as the harmful effects of vaccines.
Kennedy has been described as one of America’s “Disinformation Dozen”, a group of prominent influencers who between them are responsible for two-thirds of the antivaccine misinformation on social media, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
Kennedy was banned from Instagram back in February 2021 for posting antivaccine misinformation, although he retains his platforms on Facebook and Twitter where he continues to spruik antivaccine content to more than 260 000 followers.
There’s something particularly hideous about the fact misinformation about vaccines is being spread by a group of mostly white, privileged people in a racially targeted way.
If anything is perpetuating the legacy of eugenics, it could be that.
Jane McCredie is a science and health writer, based in Sydney.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.