Undergraduate Student Examines the Effects of Historical Health Disparities in Black Populations on Contemporary Vaccine Hesitancy

A portrait of Evelyne Nehama.
John Justino and Evelyne Nehama stand next to a purple pull up banner than says "The Honors College".
Evelyne Nehama and Undergraduate Program Director John Justino at Nehama's Honors College Graduation Ceremony.

Evelyne Nehama, an undergraduate senior double majoring in public health and emergency preparedness, homeland security and cybersecurity, recently completed her honors thesis looking at the impact of historical health disparities on current vaccine hesitancy in Black communities.

Nehama’s work described several factors that contribute to vaccine hesitancy in Black Americans, including a long history of medical racism, ineffective outreach to inform and educate communities, and distrust in healthcare systems, medical providers, and the government.

“The Tuskegee Syphilis study is often used to oversimplify the causes of hesitancy in Black communities, and as a result the main reasons for vaccine hesitancy are not addressed on an individual or policy level,” Nehama explains. “Instead of oversimplifying the cause of medical disparities and distrust to singular historical events, public health researchers must focus on a broader set of reasons for vaccine hesitancy through communication with Black communities in order to create effective strategies to eliminate health disparities in vaccination.”

For her thesis, Nehama reviewed recent news articles and peer-reviewed journal publications on current vaccine disparities and trends in vaccine hesitancy over time.

“With Covid-19, every time I heard politicians and public health officials talk about low vaccination rates, I kept hearing medical distrust brought up,” says Nehama. “It seemed more and more to me that many institutions were using the idea of distrust due to medical racism as an excuse, instead of addressing the systematic barriers that led to these disparities. It’s so important that we dive deeper and create meaningful change in this area.”

Nehama’s interest in this topic came out of related projects she has worked on during her college career. As a freshman, she wrote a commentary on the importance of routine vaccinations and the measures taken to help keep communities safe from preventable disease outbreaks. In fall 2021, she completed a project looking at why vaccination rates and hesitancy differ among groups of people. In particular, she was interested in learning more about the difference between Black Americans and White Americans.

“These projects made me look more into the effects of historical discrimination in our system and it has made me more aware of the realities of the health system— something I will take with me throughout my studies,” Nehama says.

After graduation in May 2022, Nehama will start towards her Master of Public Health (MPH) degree at UAlbany. She has also applied to the Peace Corps due to her interest in learning more about global health.