CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new study suggests that a number of African Americans are distrustful of the government's role in the origin and treatment of HIV/AIDS - and that African American men who have such beliefs also have more negative attitudes toward condoms and use them less consistently.
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, one of the National Institutes of Health. It was published this week in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes.
It is the believed to be the first study to examine a wide range of HIV/AIDS conspiracy beliefs and their relationship with condom use.
"These 'conspiracy theories' have been out there for a while and are part of a larger distrust of government, as well as of medical and public health institutions, by many African Americans," said Sheryl Thorburn, an associate professor of public health at Oregon State University and co-author of the study. "But this is one of the first studies to show that these beliefs about HIV/AIDS may be affecting behavior."
The researchers conducted a national telephone survey with 500 randomly selected African Americans, ages 15-44. Included in the survey were questions about HIV/AIDS beliefs, attitudes toward condoms, and condom use.
More than half (53.4 percent) of those surveyed said they believe that there is a cure for AIDS, but that it is being withheld from the poor. Only 37 percent felt that the government was telling the truth about AIDS.
Among the other findings:
- 43.6 percent of African Americans surveyed felt that people who take new medicines for HIV are human guinea pigs for the government;
- 26.6 percent said AIDS was produced in a government laboratory;
- 48.2 percent believed that HIV is a man-made virus;
- 15.2 percent said AIDS is a form of genocide against blacks.
"We need more open discussion about these beliefs, because they are very real," Thorburn said.
The study found that conspiracy beliefs were associated with negative attitudes toward condoms and with inconsistent condom use among African American men - regardless of socio-demographic characteristics, perceived risk and other factors. The researchers did not find the same results for women in the survey.
Thorburn conducted the study with Laura M. Bogart, a researcher with the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif. They said their results suggest that conspiracy beliefs may have a negative impact on HIV preventive practices.
Researchers believe that HIV/AIDS conspiracy beliefs stem from well-documented racial discrimination and disparities in health care - as well as past examples of unethical research, including the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the mid-20th century, the authors say.
In the Tuskegee study, which took place from 1932-72, the U.S. Public Health Service studied the effects of untreated syphilis in nearly 400 low-income African American males from rural Alabama. The men were told they were being treated for "bad blood" and were denied treatment for the disease.
Distrust of the government's role in HIV may translate into distrust of public health prevention messages about HIV and condoms, Bogart said.
"Public health professionals need to acknowledge conspiracy beliefs and work toward addressing them," Bogart said. "It is critical to have people from the community delivering messages about HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention methods."
African Americans have a disproportionately high rate of HIV and AIDS, the authors point out, and addressing barriers to prevention is critical in changing that trend.