Tuskegee relatives promote COVID-19 vaccines in ad campaign

Relatives of black men who were unknowingly part of the infamous Tuskegee experiment are promoting COVID-19 vaccines in a new ad campaign

Former Alabama city mayor Omar Neal, 63, said he was hesitant about the shots at first. Neil is the nephew of a family man Freddie Lee Tyson, who was among several hundred black men who had joined a federally-supported syphilis study decades earlier without his consent.

Neil said he agreed to join the national campaign after conducting research to gain confidence in vaccines.

“I want to save lives,” Neil told the Associated Press. “I didn’t want people to use Tuskegee and what happened there as a reason for not getting the vaccine.”

In 1932 and for more than 40 years, black men in Tuskegee, Alabama were subjected to experimentation without their knowledge. Most of the 600 men had syphilis — including Tyson, who became infected before birth — but were left untreated so researchers could study the natural history of the disease.

Tyson died of unrelated causes in 1988, 16 years after the study ended. But many others died from a disease that could be cured with penicillin.

Neil and Tyson’s other relatives are among half a dozen Tuskegee descendants featured in commercials that focus on vaccine hesitation among black Americans. They say vaccination is needed to help communities of color and curb a disease that disproportionately affected black Americans.

“Don’t deprive yourself of the opportunity men were denied,” Tyson’s daughter Lily Tyson Head, 76, said in an ad.

“It’s really up to us to take ownership of our health and this story,” Carmen Head Thornton, granddaughter Tyson called her “Armen Girl,” said in another ad.

Vaccines are highly effective against COVID-19. Yet the US vaccination rate falls short of government targets, with 46% being fully vaccinated while 54% have received a single dose. People of color lag behind white Americans in taking shots.

Officials are concerned about the slow pace of new vaccinations amid persistent pockets of resistance. Limited access is an issue for some black people, but so is distrust of the medical system.

Thornton, a director at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, was a young girl when she learned what had happened to her grandfather. The two were extremely close; She remembers catching her first fish with him and being mesmerized as she sewed quilts by hand.

She has pledged to dedicate her life to fighting health inequalities and injustice, and sees COVID-19 vaccines as a way to address the inequalities that have exposed the pandemic.

The campaign includes short-documentary and 60-second short versions made for TV and online use. They are part of the Advertising Council’s ongoing multi-million-dollar education campaign aimed at encouraging trust in shots paid for by donations from media corporations.


Follow AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner on Twitter: @LindseyTanner


The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.


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