ABC57 investigates: Misrepresented Medicine

SOUTH BEND, Ind--- Pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and Moderna are calling for more diverse candidates to sign up for COVID vaccine trials as they near closer to stage four of their testing. Many in the Black community, however, are skeptical about signing up.

"More and more we're hearing from the big drug companies and just the community in general that they want that diversity, they want that background, because these diseases affect everybody differently, whether young or old, may make a difference," said Dr. Jim Harris, Medical Director of the South Bend Clinic Center for Research.

Traditionally vaccine trials have failed to get a testing pool that accurately reflects the demographic make up of the country.

"In the past, when we first started in studies, there's much less emphasis on that. And so many trials would have less than five percent of an ethnic group besides just whites," said Harris.

Minority healthcare advocates say to understand why that number is so low, one must look at the history of medicine in America.

"Dr. [J Marion] Sims earned the title of the “Father of Modern Gynecology” for his advances in the medical field, however he studied on enslaved black women," said Marchelle Pettit, a certified labor doula and minority healthcare advocate. "Not only did he experiment on enslaved black women but he experimented on enslaved black women without any anesthesia."

Further complicating that legacy is the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment where hundreds of Black men were experimented on under the false notion that they were being treated for their disease.

"There were hundreds of African American men who were experimented on by the US government, and it went on for over 40 years and so women died, men died unnecessarily, babies died," said Pettit. "We were affected as a culture and a community."

The experiment ended in 1972. Another factor adding to the mistrust is the lack of access to quality healthcare in many Black communities.

"There are hundreds and millions of people who are going to the doctor only when something's wrong because they do not have health insurance they don't have the financial resources to go in, so it creates a again mistrust with the medical care system because we don't have the same quality care as those who do have the financial stability," said Pettit. 

Researchers are acknowledging these disparities and are going the extra mile to make sure all communities feel comfortable participating in medical trials.

"Well, if at all possible, we try to kind of take patients that we already know, because they're going to have a level of trust in us that they may not otherwise have," said Harris. "But beyond that, we try to identify patients who would most benefit from those studies."

There are serious issues if all communities aren't represented in medical studies.

"You think about the at risk patients with COVID, it's the elderly, it's the overweight, it's hypertension, diabetes, all those are risk factors," said Harris. "We want people in trials, in particular, something like a COVID trial, you want people with those factors."

"We know that our bodies are different genetically, epigenetics proves that our bodies are different and so in order to have a vaccination that will work that will help us across the board, then we need to have diverse representation those clinical trials," said Pettit. 

Given all those risk factors associated with not participating in a study, Pettit says she's still uncertain if she would sign up for one.

"I’ve had this conversation with colleagues and even my family, I’m really conflicted because of the medical abuse that I know about, I’m very conflicted if I would actually participate in that trial at the time," said Pettit.



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