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Descendants of the Tuskegee syphilis study urge trust in public health & vaccines

A new documentary put out by the Ad Council in partnership with Covid Collaborative spotlights six stories shared by descendants of the racist US Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, the lasting impacts of which have created widespread mistrust in medical institutions, particularly among Black communities. The project aims to honor the victims of the study, spell out key lessons from the traumatic event and promote the effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccine among historically disenfranchised populations.

In conjunction with Covid Collaborative, a national assembly of experts and institutions working to stem the pandemic’s spread and impact, the Ad Council has today debuted a new short-form documentary, "From Tragedy to Triumph." The film shares stories of the lasting impact of the notorious US Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. It aims to examine the long-term effects of the study through firsthand storytelling and help build up trust in medical care – particularly when it comes to educating Black communities about the Covid-19 vaccine.

The documentary, directed by Deborah Riley Draper and produced by Coffee Bluff Pictures, spotlights stories told by descendants of the men involved in the study, which is today viewed as perhaps the most well-documented instance of abuse and systemic racism in the medical field in American history.

The study, which spanned some four decades, between 1932 and 1972, manipulated more than 600 Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama into thinking they were receiving free medical care when in fact they were not being treated but were made to be unwilling participants in a torturous study that sought to examine the undeterred effects of syphilis on the human body. More than 100 men had died from syphilis or syphilis-related complications by the study’s end.

The study not only destroyed the lives of its victims and impacted the lives of victims’ families and descendants, it has also created lasting skepticism and distrust of medical establishments and public health among many communities – and especially for Black community members, for whom health outcomes are disproportionately poor and who are more likely to be discriminated against in medical settings. These feelings of distrust have been sustained during the ongoing pandemic – a pandemic that has had an outsized impact on communities of color.

“Throughout our research, we heard the Tuskegee Study cited as a reason for hesitancy around the Covid-19 vaccines within the Black community,” says Michelle Hillman, chief campaign development officer at the Ad Council. “We knew we needed to dig into the issue further.”

Giving voice to painful concerns of the past

Recent data from the Kaiser Family Foundation reveals that nearly a quarter of Black Americans are adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach to the vaccine. Plus a survey of Black Americans by the Covid Collaborative evidenced that the historical trauma created by the Tuskegee study has created mistrust and a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccine. “Giving voice to these concerns and learning from a painful past are central to improving public health now and in the future,” John Bridgeland, the collaborative’s chief executive, said in a statement.

From Tragedy to Triumph aims to break taboos and educate community members about the Covid-19 vaccine by exploring what generations of today can learn from the Tuskegee study and its lasting impact. Highlighting six unique stories from descendants of the study’s original victims – many of whom now work in the medical or education fields – the film aims to set the record straight on the truth about the study, examine the progress that has been made, help build confidence in public health within Black communities and give credence to the legitimacy of the Covid-19 vaccine.

“The loving human beings involved in the US Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee were our fathers, grandfathers, uncles and cousins,” Lillie Tyson Head said in a statement. Head, who is featured in the film, is president of the Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that connects Tuskegee study victim descendants, offers annual scholarships to descendants and participates in research on the effects of the study. “Unfortunately, until recent years, references to their humanity were not detailed in medical research or academic writings, and some information and beliefs about the study continue to be unknown, ill-perceived and misleading ... We should not allow anyone who needs and wants a Covid-19 vaccine to not have their questions answered – or be denied the opportunity to get it, like the men in the US Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. We must protect ourselves and each other.”

Another powerful chapter in ‘It’s up to you’

The Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation teamed with creative agency Joy Collective and the Black Coalition Against Covid-19 to develop the film concept. The project is part of the Ad Council and Covid Collaborative’s ongoing ‘It’s up to you’ campaign, an educational initiative that encourages people – especially those from Black and Hispanic communities – to learn more about the science and safety of vaccines. The full film, as well as condensed versions of the film, will run nationwide in media space donated to the project.

From Tragedy to Triumph is the latest in the Ad Council’s long history of bringing public service and social good communications to life, originating with the organization’s communications in the early days of World War II. It has been involved in public good-focused communications surrounding everything from national traumas like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina to issues of drunk driving and LGBT+ rights.

“We’re humbled to use our platform to amplify these powerful stories about understanding the tragedy of this study, honoring the legacy of the men involved and how current generations have since dedicated their lives to improving public health – at a time when faith in science and medicine is critical in helping us move beyond the Covid-19 pandemic,” Hillman says. “We hope this work will inspire people across the country to get educated on the Covid-19 vaccines, so they can ultimately make the best decision for themselves and their families.”

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