A documentary made by a group led by anti-vaccine advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., that brings up already debunked claims about vaccines, reportedly targets African Americans with its disinformation.
The 57-minute online film entitled, Medical Racism: The New Apartheid was produced by Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense organization, which has been accused in the past of spreading disinformation about vaccines, including an argument that questions the established science disproving claims that vaccines cause autism.
NPR reports that the film makes a connection with actual horrific racist incidents in medicine like the Tuskegee Experiment of the 1930s to activists in the anti-vaccine movement who attempt to tell people of color to be wary of vaccines.
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The film even goes as far as interviewing Yale University medical history professor Naomi Rogers about historic medical racism, and using their discussion with her to bolster its point, although she says she was never told how the interview would be used and told NPR she felt duped.
"I was naive, certainly, in assuming that this was actually a documentary, which I would say it is not. I think that it is an advocacy piece for anti-vaxxers," Rogers said. "I'm still very angry. I feel that I was used."
The documentary goes on to place some emphasis on the anti-vaccination movement’s claims about autism, referring to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study about measles, mumps, rubella vaccines and rates of autism to argue that Black children were being affected. But the study never said that they were at any increased risk of the condition because of the vaccines. In fact, the CDC makes it clear on their own website, saying vaccines absolutely do not cause autism.
That sequence is exemplary of several others that apparently attempt to manipulate publicly available data to fit the film’s narrative.
Rogers only appears briefly in the film, but she told NPR that it purports that the anti-vaccine movement is somehow crusading to stop medical experimentation among Black people. She said it takes the issues she has worked for in her career, “like health disparities, fighting racism in health, working against discrimination, and it's been twisted for the purposes of this anti-vax movement."
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Another prominent name dubiously used in the film is Dr. Oliver Brooks, who is immediate past president of the National Medical Association, the largest Black physicians organization in the country. Its history stretches back to its founding in 1895 during a time when many African Americans could not get even basic medical care.
Brooks told NPR that he did agree to participate in the documentary, but now that he’s seen it, he feels that he shouldn’t have.
"The crux of the documentary is generally don't get vaccinated," Brooks said. "There is an understandable concern in the African American community regarding vaccines — however, in the end, my position is you look past those, have an understanding of those and still get vaccinated...that nuance was not felt or presented in the documentary."
Kennedy’s group released the film in March, when vaccines were beginning to roll out. But that was also when many in the African American community had hard questions about vaccinations, which were fueled with memories about the effects of racism in medicine and the disparities that persist to this day.
One of the film’s co-producers, Curtis Cost told NPR that it does not outright tell anyone not to take the coronavirus vaccine, but that it wants people to “recognize this history that leads right into the present, and especially when they're facing decisions about whether they should take any vaccine, including COVID.”
But Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate isn’t buying it, saying this is typical of the anti-vaccine movement’s ploys.
"They've seen the opportunity to target a specifically African American audience," Ahmed said.”
The Biden Administration has pushed forward with efforts to get vaccines into communities of color. In an April interview with BET.com, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy insisted the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, which have been administered to more than 42 percent of the U.S. population, according to federal data. Black people are at twice the risk of whites dying of COVID-19, the CDC says.
“That's why we're really encouraging everybody to get the information you need to understand about these vaccines and then make an appointment to get vaccinated, that's how we're going to turn this pandemic around,” said Murthy.
But there are still challenges in getting African Americans vaccinated. According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 29 percent of the total Black population has received shots, while 43 percent of white people have done so.
For the latest on the coronavirus, check out BET’s blog on the virus, and contact your local health department or visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.