A new national survey links HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories among African Americans with high-risk sexual behaviors among black men.
The study also highlights the widespread acceptance of these beliefs among African Americans—a phenomenon researchers attribute to historic discrimination and ongoing disparities in health care access and treatment.
“These ‘conspiracy theories’ have been out there for a while and are part of a larger distrust of government as well as medical and public health institutions among African Americans,” says Sheryl Thorburn, an associate professor at Oregon State University and co-author of the study, which was published in the Feb. 1 issue of Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes.
A prime example of such theories is that medical or political authorities are withholding an AIDS cure from the poor. The study showed African American men with such beliefs were more likely to view condom use negatively and less likely to use condoms regularly. “These beliefs are potential barriers to AIDS prevention,” says Thorburn.
Many African Americans Distrust HIV/AIDS Research and Medicines
Overall, 53 percent of African Americans surveyed for the study say they believe a cure for AIDS is being withheld from the poor. Just over one-third—37 percent—say the government is telling the truth about the disease. The phone survey of 500 randomly selected African Americans ages 15 to 44 also produced these findings:
- 44 percent believe people who take new medicines for HIV are human guinea pigs for the government;
- 27 percent believe AIDS was produced in a government laboratory;
- 48 percent believe HIV is a man-made virus;
- 15 percent said AIDS is a form of genocide against blacks; and
- 16 percent say the government created AIDS to control the black population.
About one-half of respondents had some college in their educational background, and 47 percent earned more than $35,000 a year. One-fourth said they had contracted a sexually transmitted disease.
While the researchers found that African American men and women hold conspiracy beliefs about HIV/AIDS in relatively equal numbers, the effect of these beliefs on behavior was most striking among men (see table). Women generally did not relate the conspiracy theory to views regarding condoms, but the link was strongly evident among male counterparts. And Thorburn adds that the stronger an African American man held a conspiracy belief, the less likely he was to use a condom.
Conspiracy Beliefs And African Americans
Percent of African Americans Who Agree ‘Somewhat’ or ‘Strongly’
|HIV/AIDS Conspiracy Belief||Overall||Men||Women|
|Medicines to treat HIV are saving lives in the black community||38.4||42.0||36.5|
|A lot of information about AIDS is being held back from the public||58.8||62.6||56.8|
|AIDS has a cure, but it is being withheld from the poor||53.4||55.2||52.5|
|Government is telling the truth about AIDS||37.0||31.6||39.9|
|HIV was created and spread by the CIA||12.0||16.1||9.8|
|AIDS is a form of genocide against blacks||15.2||20.7||12.3|
|AIDS was created by the government to control the black population||16.2||21.3||13.5|
|People who take new AIDS drugs are guinea pigs for the government||43.6||43.7||43.6|
|AIDS was produced in a government lab||26.6||30.5||24.5|
|Medical and public health personnel are trying to stop the spread of HIV in black communities||75.4||74.1||76.1|
|HIV is a man-made virus||48.2||48.3||48.2|
Source: Laura M. Bogart and Sheryl Thorburn, “Are HIV/AIDS Conspiracy Beliefs a Barrier to HIV Prevention Among African Americans?” Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes 38, no. 2 (2005).
HIV/AIDS Hits African Americans Disproportionately
The findings are particularly troubling, Thorburn notes, given recent U.S. statistics about HIV and AIDS. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), African Americans represented nearly 50 percent of new HIV cases diagnosed in the United States in 2003, even though blacks are only 12.3 percent of the nation’s population.1
In 2003, African Americans were nearly 10 times more likely than whites to be diagnosed with AIDS. And since 1995, African Americans have the poorest survival rates of any group of people diagnosed with AIDS.2
Laura Bogart, a health psychologist at the RAND Corporation and co-author of the study, says the nation’s public health officials need to focus on the ramifications of conspiracy beliefs. “We need more open discussion about these beliefs,” says Bogart, “because they are very real.”
Historical Context and Suspicious HIV Etiology Fuels Such Beliefs
A prominent researcher on African American culture says she is not surprised at the large number of people who believe AIDS conspiracy theories.
“I found people with Ph.Ds who believed conspiracy theories about AIDS,” says Patricia Turner, dean of humanities at University of California-Davis and author of I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumors in African American Culture.
And the currency of these beliefs is understandable, Turner adds, given historic discrimination against African Americans, the “unorthodox” emergence of AIDS among often-marginalized populations such as homosexuals and the poor, and the lack of a cure. She calls AIDS “tailor-made” for conspiracy theories.
“If I were going to write a novel about a disease with unusual origins, you couldn’t have done a better job of it than with AIDS,” says Turner. “Most afflictions have been around for a long time. Why all of a sudden was there a disease so deadly and new?”
Turner notes that the health inequalities and injustices African Americans have faced since the days of slavery have also contributed heavily to genesis of conspiracy theories. Generations of blacks also know of infamous experiments such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study from 1932 to 1972, in which the federal government studied the effects of untreated syphilis among 400 low-income African American males in Alabama. The men were denied treatment for the disease during their participation in the study.
Past research has also shown that African Americans are much more likely than whites to believe conspiracy theories about AIDS. Studies in the 1990s by Gregory Herek, professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis, found whites were about 50 percent less likely than blacks to question the government’s truthfulness about the disease.
How Medical Practitioners Should Approach Conspiracy Theories
As part of her research on rumors in African American communities, Turner says she found AIDS conspiracy beliefs present among all income and educational levels. The theories also provide a convenient link to behavioral decisions. For example, if men already are dubious of condoms, belief in the conspiracy helps rationalize their decision not to use them.
Turner also says she talked to medical practitioners in San Francisco as part of her research and offered them suggestions on combating these beliefs. Her advice: Tell patients to respect the disease, regardless of its origin. “Even you think it was designed in a laboratory, you still don’t want to get it,” Turner says.
Co-author Bogart hopes the new report makes medical professionals more aware of conspiracy theories about HIV/AIDS and helps them develop strategies to better work with patients. “Public health professionals need to acknowledge conspiracy beliefs,” she said, “and work toward addressing them.”
“Our findings show that it’s necessary to tailor a public health message to a community,” Bogart added. “No one billboard message is going to work for an entire city. Public health practitioners need to openly address these conspiracy beliefs and create culturally appropriate messages for African Americans.”
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HIV/AIDS Among African Americans (fact sheet) (2003), accessed online at www.cdc.gov/hiv/pubs/facts/afam.pdf on Feb. 3, 2005.
- CDC, HIV/AIDS Among African Americans (2003).
For More Information
Laura M. Bogart and Sheryl Thorburn, “Are HIV/AIDS Conspiracy Beliefs a Barrier to HIV Prevention Among African Americans?” Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes 38, no. 2 (2005): 213-18.
Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, www.jaids.com
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/hiv/pubs/facts/afam.htm