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Where Are the Black Anti-Vaxxers in the Measles Debate?

Given the well-documented history of harmful government sponsored medical programs impacting African Americans, where are they in the anti-vax debate?
New bid to give all children MMR jab
New bid to give all children MMR jab.File photo dated 9/8/2004 of a nurse handles a syringe at a medical centre in Ashford, Kent. Associated Press

American politics is famous for its short term memory.

A day can change someone’s political fortune, a week can change the direction of the entire election cycle. Take this week, when prominent Republican presidential contenders for 2016, Rand Paul (R – KY) and Chris Christie suggested that vaccinations for measles (and other diseases) should be voluntary because they may cause autism. Of course they’re just piling on the tsunami of anti-vaccination mania that was launched by actress/activist Jenny McCarthy, along with Jim Carrey and Bill Maher just to name a few.

A lot of this anti-vaccination movement is about class and choice, as much as it’s about race.

These folks, without a great deal of evidence, are convinced that the government and pharmaceutical companies are using us as guinea pigs for sick experiments. To my knowledge there isn’t a long history in America of conducting science experiments on rich white people’s kids, but there is a well-documented history of such experiments on African Americans.

Which raises the question: Where are all the Black Anti-Vaxxers?

If there were any population in the United States that should be suspicious of vaccinations, or government sponsored medical programs it should be the African American population. You don’t have to go all the way back to the Tuskegee experiments. Testing done on mostly black prisoners, involuntary government sanctioned sterilization programs, medical discrimination and highly suspicious “birth control” programs even into the 1990s -- there’s ample reason for black people to be suspicious.

These actual incidents of abuse explain why so many African Americans think that AIDS is a creation by the government or why so many people believed that certain types of soda and Church’s Chicken cause sterility.

“African Americans have a well-earned skepticism towards the medical community “ says Dr. Carlton Haywood Jr. of the Berman Institute of Bioethics at the John’s Hopkins School of Medicine. “Anytime somebody in a white coat and a mask comes around telling me what to do I’m going to be suspicious, based on our history and interactions.”

The outbreak of measles from California to now 14 states has re-ignited the discussion of the importance of immunization with the MMR (Measles Mumps Rubella) vaccine and re-ignited the conspiracy theory that the MMR vaccine is connected to autism and the CDC is attempting a cover up.

Even more telling is that one of the most often cited studies for Anti-Vaxxers was conducted by the CDC in 2004 which supposedly showed that the MMR vaccine increases the likelihood of autism in African American boys by over 300 percent.

So why aren’t black celebrities, pastors and the NAACP screaming about this issue? Because, according to Haywood, a lot of this anti-vaccination movement is about class and choice, as much as it’s about race.

“It’s true that blacks and Latinos are less likely to get immunized from diseases than whites, but a lot of that is about healthcare access,” says Haywood.

In other words it’s very easy to hold marches on the steps of the Capitol about the treachery of vaccinations when your family has access to all sorts of other medical care and resources. African Americans, still lagging behind whites in access to affordable care, may be suspicious of the government, but many don’t have the option to ‘refuse’ immunizations that may not be offered to begin with.

The other explanation for the lack of black anti-vaxxers however is even more basic. If the MMR vaccine increased the chance of autism by over 300 percent in black boys only the results would be stark and overwhelmingly apparent, similar to the rise of HIV in the ‘90s or syphilis in the ‘50s. But that hasn’t happened. So whether people know that the autism MMR immunization connection has been debunked, or whether they have never heard about it, it ultimately doesn’t matter.

African Americans have been poisoned, experimented on and physically abused by various agencies and institutions for years. As a culture and a community we know the difference between a real conspiracy and an overreaction.