A group of MU medical students is striving to educate the Black community about COVID-19 vaccines and bridge a mistrust many minorities hold toward health institutions.

Abdoulie Njai, 26, is a third-year medical student at MU. On Sunday, Njai and two other MU medical students went to Columbia businesses South Florida Style Chicken and Ribs and Plush Ultra Lounge to raise awareness about an event they’ll be hosting Wednesday.

Njai and the MU School of Medicine will host an online forum Wednesday called “Let’s Talk: COVID Vaccines and the Black Community.” There will be a conversation with a panel of Black doctors and nurses where members of the community can ask questions. Njai said participants can expect honest answers.

“We think it’s really important to make sure that people have the facts and they’re also able to voice their concerns,” Njai said. “I think the biggest thing with this forum is that not only are we trying to provide an opportunity for the community to learn more about the vaccine and about COVID, but we also want to hear their concerns. We want to address that people have not trusted the medical institutions.”

Black, Latino and Native Americans across the United States are nearly three times more likely than white Americans to die from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Njai was inspired to spread awareness and vaccine information because of the conversations he would hear at his local barbershop, A Cut Above.

“I started going back in, and a lot of the conversations that we heard while we were there were surrounding the COVID vaccines, COVID in general and then vaccine hesitancy,” Njai said.

Barbershops and beauty salons can serve as central hubs in the Black community, and a lot of people go into those spaces for more than just to get their hair done. Njai explained that people come into barber shops and beauty salons for the conversations. People come into these spaces to engage and listen to debates. People also go to listen to people talk about sports, politics and current events. These conversations have also been geared toward COVID-19.

Njai heard the concerns about the vaccine can be because of the comorbidities people may have, the effects the vaccine can have and their distrust in medical institutions.

This distrust may stem from a history of racism in the medical field. This history can be seen in events like the Tuskegee Study, where a group of Black men with syphilis were told they were being given treatment for their illness but were actually given placebos so researchers could study the disease, and the story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose doctor removed cells from her cervix without her consent. Njai hopes his efforts will help mend this distrust.

An analysis by Kaiser Health News found that in the first few weeks of the vaccine’s rollout, Black Americans received vaccinations at lower rates nationwide. In Missouri, only 1% of Black residents in Missouri had been vaccinated as of Jan. 14, compared with the 2% of the state’s white residents, Kaiser Health News reported.

Forty-two percent of Black Missouri residents were skeptical that the COVID-19 vaccine would be fairly distributed, according to an MHA poll earlier this month.

This is not the first time Njai has addressed issues of racial disparities in the medical community. In 2020, Njai and fellow student Patricia De Castro created the Common Read Program. Starting in 2020, incoming students at the MU School of Medicine participated in the program to learn more about racial biases in medicine.

This program focuses on how can people incorporate issues such as diversity, equity and inclusion into conversation as soon as students step foot into medical school.

“To emphasize these issues is just as important as learning your basic physiology, learning your pharmacology,” Njai said. “Learning about the impact of systemic racism, how that can impact the care of your patients and the role that implicit bias plays and how important it is, to know about your own implicit biases and how that can play a role in patient care going forward.”

Njai is also the president of the MU chapter of Student National Medical Association. The organization’s mission is to support current and future underrepresented minority medical students and address the needs of underserved communities.

To attend the forum, use this Zoom link or dial 929-205-6099.

“I feel like the only way to truly address the vaccine hesitancy that we’re seeing in these minority communities in particular right now with Black community is to have frank and real conversations like this,” Njai said.

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  • General Assignment Reporter, Spring 2021 Studying Journalism with an emphasis in Magazine Writing Reach me at kelsy.armstrong@umsystem.edu, or in the newsroom at (573) 882-5700

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