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Charles Drew University working to debunk vaccine myths

Dr. David M. Carlisle, CDU’s President & CEO. (299414)
Dr. David M. Carlisle, CDU’s President & CEO. Credit: Charles Drew University.

It is understandable why the Black community has questions about COVID-19 vaccines, according to educators. Many recall the Tuskegee Experiment, held from 1932 to 1972. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers set out to study the effects of syphilis in Black men. However, the men  were never given proper treatment or penicillin for their disease.

Combating inadequate medical access is part of the mission at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU). That’s why CDU is currently working to “debunk myths about vaccines” in communities of color.


Dr. David M. Carlisle, CDU’s President & CEO, believes in herd immunity through vaccination.

“Resistance is natural… it’s good to question things… but in my mind the science is clear,” said Carlisle. “We are dealing with a deadly condition. COVID-19 kills. There’s only one solution, that’s vaccination.”

CDU is a private, nonprofit, community-focused, historically Black school in Los Angeles. It was incorporated in 1966. At a recent CDU Community Forum, faculty and staff told community members it will be important for Black and Brown people to be vaccinated. Faculty shared various reasons why, like age and the higher proportion of persons of color employed as essential workers. As the United States of America transitions from the Trump administration to the Biden administration, health experts are looking forward to reprioritizing public health.

“One thing that’s different is coherent public policy. That’s what’s been missing,” Carlisle explained.

Community education

Jay Vadgama, Ph.D is the vice president for Research and Health Affairs at Charles Drew. Vadgama knows first hand the importance of working with pastors and other  community leaders to make an impact in South Los Angeles, Willowbrook, Watts and Compton. “Inclusion is going to make the difference,” said Vadgama. For example, to increase awareness of breast cancer screening in the Black community “(we worked) with pastors and different clergy.”

That’s a similar approach that Dr. LaShonda Spencer will implement in the fight against the coronavirus in the Black community.

“The way we need to address it is by having community forums, educating our community,” said Spencer, who recently became the director of CDU’s Drew Center for AIDS Research Education (DREW C.A.R.E.S.).

Spencer said it is important for healthcare professionals to correct misinformation. She said it is also paramount that doctors and nurses do not reinforce negative images and stereotypes related to COVID-19.

Who are the most vulnerable?

Who should get the vaccine first… that’s a question equally on the minds of community members and medical researchers.

Carlisle said vulnerable groups like healthcare workers, specifically nurses, and nursing home residents could be first in line for COVID-19 vaccination. He said in general, older people could receive priority. It is also crucial that communities of color, where many people are essential workers, are vaccinated sooner rather than later.

Researchers understand there is currently a stigma associated with testing positive and receiving treatment for the coronavirus, especially in the Black community.

“If we create (herd) immunity, we won’t have to worry about stigmatization,” Carlisle said.

Until herd immunity, frontline workers will continue to plead with the public to follow physical and social distancing protocols.

“The community and society needs to wear a mask,” Spencer said.” We want everyone to wear their masks, they work.”

Vaccine testing

“It is imperative for communities of color to be included in testing,” Carlisle said.

When it comes to COVID-19 vaccine trials, researchers at Charles Drew are extremely encouraged. However, they admit nothing is ever a 100 percent certainty.

“We want to make sure that the truth is out there that no vaccine is 100 percent effective… but preliminary results show 90 percent (for COVID-19 vaccines).”

However, Carlisle is encouraged that people who have not taken influenza vaccine in years, are considering or have already taken the flu shot this year.

“Vaccination… this is how we’re going to stop COVID-19,” Carlisle concluded.