To vax or not to vax. Should this be a question?

Let me start out by saying I’m not an anti-vaxxer. I had chicken pox as a kid, so I recently got my two shots of the shingles vaccine, because, well, I’m a woman of a certain age.

My friend and colleague, Thor Jourgensen, sent me down memory lane in his column last week recalling the sugar cube we all ate as children that contained the polio vaccine. In a previous column I talked about the little mark on my left shoulder that my daughter always assumed was a birth mark. It’s not. But if you’re even 20 years younger than me, you don’t have one. Because that mark came from the small pox vaccine that wiped out the virus world wide by the time the next generation was born.

I get a flu shot every year, although I have at least one sibling who refuses to get one, saying she hasn’t gotten the flu in more than 20 years. Neither have I, although it took only one bout of that lying-on-the-cool-bathroom-floor, afraid-you’re-going-to-die-then-afraid-you-won’t feeling to decide that I could live the rest of my life without repeating that experience.

I don’t go out willy-nilly advocating for any and all vaccines. When my daughter was an infant, the first rotavirus vaccine came out. Her pediatrician advised waiting because she wasn’t so sure about it. Sure enough, within a month of our conversation, the vaccine was recalled because some children had experienced intestinal blockage from it. I trusted her so much that even after she had moved out of state, I got back in touch to ask her opinion when my daughter was old enough for the HPV vaccine. 

Yet I also understand some people’s reluctance to take a COVID-19 vaccine. And they come from all different political ideologies.

Some have been convinced to not trust scientists, to eschew face masks that will help slow the rates of infection, who still may think this is all a hoax by the “deep state.”  I would be interested in seeing a Venn diagram of the people who are anti-face mask wearers and anti-vaxxers. I wonder if it’s just a circle.

On the other hand, there are some communities, who may vote for the other political party, but still are reticent about trusting a government that developed this vaccine at “warp speed.” And their reluctance comes from a different point of view.

Centuries before Dr. Josef Mengele performed his atrocities on Holocaust victims, colonizers subjected Black, brown and Native American bodies to experimentation and brutalization, sometimes in the name of science, other times just for sadism. Google Tuskegee syphilis experiment or the enduring and uncredited legacy of Henrietta Lacks if you’re at all unaware of why communities of color are less trusting of the medical community. Add to that the appalling inequities of health care in those communities and there are so many feelings to unpack.

And yet, this coronavirus has ravaged so many in our Black, brown and Native American communities, that we need to both acknowledge our distrust of the medical community, and the fact that our survival depends on science and medicine. 

I believe that the anti-science “deep state” believers and the people whose history includes real harm done to them in the name of science are suddenly becoming strange bedfellows. When we only have about 60 percent of people saying they would take the vaccine, we have to make some tough decisions on how long we want to live in this pandemic, how many lives we’re willing to sacrifice, and whether taking a vaccine is better or worse than surviving an illness that may come with long-lasting side effects.

Why wouldn’t you take it? That was the question my daughter posed when we first talked about the rollout of a vaccine. I couldn’t come up with an answer for my initial hesitation. It helped that Black scientists were part of the solution, that Black patients were part of the clinical trials, that Black healthcare workers were among the first in line. 

These first recipients, pioneers who looked like me, did much to assuage that fear of being a “guinea pig.” 

History has made many of us afraid of scientific experiments, the medical community’s dismissal of our pain and suffering (Black patients, even children, routinely are given less pain medication after surgery), and overall worse health outcomes than our white neighbors. 

But COVID-19 is killing us. I don’t mind rocking a mask for as long as it takes to get this under control. But when the time comes next spring or summer, I’m also going to be rolling up my sleeve.

Cheryl Charles can be reached at ccharles@itemlive.com

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