Toy people with their backs to a vaccine


The AIDS Epidemic Offers a Roadmap to Ending COVID-19

May 17, 2021

Inequality within our healthcare system has made Black Americans understandably distrustful of medical authorities. But right now, amid a global pandemic, that distrust is killing us.

“How do we reassure communities of color that the vaccines are safe and effective—and encourage people to get the shots that could save their lives?” Brian Harper, M.D., M.P.H., vice president for equity and inclusion and chief medical officer, poses this question in an op-ed in the New York Daily News.   

It’s an urgent—but not unprecedented—problem. Public health workers faced similar obstacles when dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s, Harper writes in the op-ed co-authored with Michelle McMurray-Heath, M.D., M.P.H., president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

Then, like now, doctors and healthcare professionals didn’t possess enough influence in minority communities to counteract widespread rumors. Efforts to increase testing rates and deliver timely treatment were severely hampered. And far too many people lost their lives.

“But eventually, we broke through. How? By collaborating with people and institutions who already possessed high levels of trust within communities of color. Local governments partnered with organizations like the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS. We brought together religious leaders and local Black politicians with the goal of disseminating accurate and scientific information about HIV/AIDS. Organizations like the Latino Commission on AIDS played a similar role in the Hispanic community,” Harper shared.

This strategy succeeded in beating back the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and it is what’s required to get accurate information on COVID-19 vaccines to people of color today.

There’s been some progress. Health organizations are partnering with groups like the Black Coalition Against Covid, UnidosUS, the National Black Church Initiative, and, sharing scientific resources and content in multiple languages and hosting educational webinars.

But more should be done so that minority Americans can hear reliable information about the virus and vaccines from clergy or local political or community leaders they highly regard.

Granted, the establishment won’t build trust among people of color overnight. “But equipping community leaders with reliable, scientific facts about vaccines is the surest path to getting shots in arms and reaching herd immunity,” the co-authors conclude.

Read the entire op-ed.

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