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An anti-vaccine film targeted to Black Americans spreads false information

Will Stone, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

The film draws a line from the real and disturbing history of racism and atrocities in the medical field — such as the Tuskegee syphilis study — to interviews with anti-vaccine activists who warn communities of color to be suspicious of modern-day vaccines.

At one point in “Medical Racism,” viewers are warned that “in Black communities something is very sinister” and “the same thing that happened in the 1930s during the eugenics movement” is happening again.

There is a lengthy discussion of the thoroughly disproven link between autism and vaccines. For example, the film references a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism rates as evidence that African American children are being particularly harmed, but in reality the study did not conclude that African Americans are at increased risk of autism because of vaccination.

The movie then displays a chart claiming to use that same CDC data — obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request — to make a connection between vaccinating Black children and autism risk. The findings in the chart closely resemble another study sometimes mentioned by anti-vaccine activists, but the medical journal later retracted the study, because of “undeclared competing interests on the part of the author” and “concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis.” (That study’s author was a paid independent contractor for Kennedy’s group as of 2020 and sits on its board of directors.)

The film also brings up a 2014 study from the Mayo Clinic that showed Somali Americans and African Americans have a more robust immune response to the rubella vaccine than Caucasians and Hispanic Americans. One of those interviewed in Kennedy’s film then asks, “So if you have that process that could be caused by vaccines, why wouldn’t there be a link between vaccines and developmental delays?”

But the study’s author, leading vaccine researcher Dr. Gregory Poland, said this conjecture is not accurate.

 

According to a statement provided to NPR by the Mayo Clinic, the study demonstrated “higher protective immune responses in African-American subjects with no evidence of increased vaccine side effects,” and any claim of “‘increased vulnerability’ among African-Americans who receive the rubella vaccine is simply not supported by either this study or the science.”

For her part, Rogers, the Yale professor, appears for only about 14 seconds in the film. Her quotes are accurate. But her remarks are embedded in a wider narrative that she has “enormous problems with” — namely that the anti-vaccine movement is heroically engaged in a new civil rights campaign, one meant to stop experimentation on the Black community.

Rogers said the film uses many ideas she holds “passionately, like health disparities, fighting racism in health, working against discrimination, and it’s been twisted for the purposes of this anti-vax movement.”

Another credible expert from mainstream medicine also appears in the film: Dr. Oliver Brooks, the immediate past president of the National Medical Association. The group is the largest organization representing African American physicians in the United States.

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