More African Americans need to participate in clinical trials

Excerpt of an op-ed by David Satcher, MD, PhD, honorary chairman of the African American Network Against Alzheimer’s, former U.S. surgeon general and Research!America’s 2007 Raymond and Beverly Sackler Award for Sustained National Leadership award winner, published in The Washington Post.

DavidSatcher1Every February our society measures its progress in the march toward equality as part of Black History Month. But seldom do we discuss inequality in health, an injustice that continues to plague African Americans.

A whole host of health disparities remains unaddressed, including Alz­heimer’s — a disease that African Americans are two to three times more likely to develop than non-Hispanic whites. This disparity is rooted as much in our cultural heritage as in our genes.

For years, studies have found that African Americans have a profound mistrust of doctors and scientists. Consequently, we participate in clinical trials at far lower rates than other ethnic groups, which helps to perpetuate the sort of disparities seen with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. This fear of clinical trials dates to a dark chapter in our shared history: the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

The Tuskegee study was an infamous clinical experiment in which researchers and the U.S. Public Health Service led African American men with syphilis to believe that they were receiving free medical care while, unbeknown to them, they were being left untreated so scientists could study the effects of prolonged syphilis. After the Associated Press exposed the truth, sparking a public outcry, the U.S. government ended the study in 1972, 40 years after it began.

The 1974 National Research Act set new guidelines for the use of humans in clinical studies. In 1997, the Clinton administration worked with higher education institutions to usher in new training requirements and ethical standards for physicians, researchers and medical students as part of an official apology President Bill Clinton issued on behalf of the nation to the victims of the experiments. While these standards go a long way toward helping to prevent future such experiments, much damage was already done among African Americans.

Read the full op-ed here.

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