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Descendant of the infamous syphilis study weighs in on COVID-19 vaccine

Photograph of participants in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study
Posted at 5:00 AM, Dec 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-17 10:48:59-05

WIRTZ, Va. - There is a deep-rooted distrust surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine for some people, especially in the Black community.

The skepticism is centered around past evils approved by the United States government involving Black people, particularly the U.S. Public Health Service’s “Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” at the Tuskegee Institute.

“They wanted the men to die so that they could figure out how syphilis affected their bodies,” said Lillie Tyson Head of Wirtz, Virginia, a descendant of a participant in the study. “They were human beings. They deserved the dignity and the respect and the care as every human being did.”

Head’s father, Fred Lee Tyson, was among the 600 Black men deliberately deceived by the U.S. government in that infamous syphilis study. Head said a key point in the government’s deception – withholding the cure to syphilis so they could study how the deadly disease spread in Black bodies – is the very reason why she is determined to roll up her sleeves for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“My father was denied that opportunity,” said Head. “When the vaccine is available to my group, I plan to take it.”

Beginning in 1932, a government-led team of doctors recruited hundreds of Black men from Macon County, Alabama. Doctors only told them they had “bad blood” that needed to be studied at Tuskegee Institute. However, the men had syphilis, a deadly disease. It can be transmitted through sex, but most of the men in the study were born with it, like Head’s father.

“They were so trusting. These were some honest men. Trusting men,” said Head. “When he found out that he had been in the study, my father was in his 70s. [He was] angry that he had been so deceived and had been told such a lie.”

The lie was brought to light in 1972 by Associated Press Reporter Jean Heller. Her investigation revealed that doctors learned penicillin cured syphilis a few years into the study, but they withheld the treatment from the men in the study for nearly 40 years.

“Medical doctors deliberately let them die, wanted them to die, for what they could discover from their bodies later,” said Heller in an interview with Newsy. “Everyone who knew about this and didn’t blow the whistle, that didn’t shout to high heaven that this is wrong, is culpable.”

The United States government official apologized in 1997, but decades later, the sting of the study’s deception casts a shadow of doubt and fear over the government’s push to get millions vaccinated to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m leaning on the science and hoping that the government will acknowledge what has happened in the past and why our distrust is so deep,” Head said.

While Head’s father did not die of syphilis, nearly 100 of the men in the study did die from the disease – lives that could have been saved. Head said that’s why she’s urging the government to do the right thing now.

“I hope this vaccine will reach everyone, especially those who need it the most. The ones who are left out, the ones who are marginalized,” said Head. “[The men in the study] were denied [treatment], so let’s make sure that none of us are denied the vaccine when it comes out no matter who we are and where we are.”

Head said the syphilis study descendants have different views on taking the vaccine, but they are on the same page when it comes to educating everyone about what happened in this country through their foundation, Voices for Our Fathers. They hope sharing their fathers’ stories will ensure the evils they experienced will never happen again.