Medicine and Race

The U.S. has apologized for yet another complicity in what can only be termed as a racist medical experiement. American scientists deliberately infected prisoners and patients in a mental hospital in Guatemala with syphylis 60 years ago.  The time period was 1946-1948 and the recent discovery prompted US officials to apologize this past Friday. Of course “outraged” was expressed.  Quite naturally, this story dredges up other American medical wrong doings such as The Infamous Tuskegee Experiment.

The Tuskegee syphilis study has scarred African American to this very day. African American men were ignored after being diagnosed with syphilis from 1932-1972 in Alabama. Deliberately ingnored without ever being offered treatment. But then again, why would they be offered treatment? They’re not really human anyway. For those of you who believe these are isolated incidents in our young nation’s glorious past, please purchase, Medical Aparthied: The Dark History(no pun intended) Of Medical Experiments on Black Americans From Colonial Times To The Present. The author is Harriet Washington. Ms. Washington is a medical writer and editor,as well as being a Fellow in Medical Ethics at Harvard Medical School and Stanford University. She is also the visiting scholar at De Paul University School of Law. I’m sure our First Nations brothers and sisters have their stories to tell about blankets being deliberately given to tribes after they had been infected with smallpox. Talk about germ warfare, but no more of that.

I write this because I have worked in healthcare, specifically as a hospital chaplain in New York City and here in Asheville. I have witnessed the fear among people of color right here in this city regarding our health care system. One may argue that this fear borders on paranoia. Yet history says other wise. A study in Bloomberg Businessweek on September 10th of this year reports of a distrust of hospitals by African Americans which deters them from even blood donation. Science without conscience is the soul’s perdition. I still encourage African American citizens here in Asheville to participate whenever free screenings are offered by Mission if they cannot afford otherwise.  Prevention is key.

As healthcare workers we must be sensitive to this history whether we choose to believe it or not. It is part of diversity education and cultural competency. We must be responsible for our own health, and yet history cannot be ignored. That is unless one feels bound to repeat it!

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