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Nearly Half of African Americans Believe HIV Is Manmade; Beliefs Hurt Prevention Efforts, Study Says

January 25, 2005

A "significant proportion" of surveyed African Americans believe that U.S. government scientists created HIV to eradicate or "control" African-American communities, according to a study released Tuesday and published in the Feb. 1 issue of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, the Washington Post reports (Fears, Washington Post, 1/25). RAND Corporation and Oregon State University researchers surveyed by telephone 500 African Americans ages 15 to 44, asking their opinion on a series of questions about HIV/AIDS "myths," according to a RAND release (RAND release, 1/25). Nearly half of respondents said they believe that HIV is manmade, with approximately 12% of respondents saying they believe HIV was created and spread by the CIA, according to the study (Washington Post, 1/25). Nearly 27% of respondents agreed that "AIDS was produced in a government laboratory." In addition, about 16% of survey respondents agreed that the government created HIV/AIDS to "control" the black population, and about 15% agreed with a statement saying that AIDS is a form of "genocide" against African Americans. The study -- which was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development -- found that men were more likely than women to believe HIV/AIDS-related "conspiracy theories" and that African-American men who have such beliefs are less likely to use condoms to protect against HIV transmission, according to the release. However, African-American women who have similar beliefs were not less likely to report condom use, according to the release.

Other Findings
The survey also found that:

Laura Bogart, a RAND behavioral scientist and co-author of the study, called the findings "striking and a wake-up call to the prevention community" (Washington Post, 1/25). "This is one of the first studies to show that these beliefs about HIV/AIDS may be affecting behavior," Sheryl Thorburn, an associate professor of public health at OSU and co-author of the study, said, adding, "Our results suggest that these beliefs may have a negative impact on preventive practices. We need more open discussion about these beliefs." Bogart said, "Our findings show that it's necessary to tailor a public health message to a community," adding, "Public health practitioners need to openly address these conspiracy beliefs and create culturally appropriate messages for African Americans" (RAND release, 1/25).

Na'im Akbar, a professor of psychology at Florida State University who specializes in African-American behavior, said he was not surprised at the study findings. "This is not a bunch of crazy people running around saying they're out to get us," Akbar said, adding that the beliefs come from "the reality of 300 years of slavery and 100 years of post-slavery exploitation" (Washington Post, 1/25). There have been several "well-documented cases of racial discriminations that led to substandard health care for African Americans during much of American history," including the "infamous" Tuskegee syphilis study -- in which African-American men in Alabama were denied treatment for syphilis while being told they were being treated for "bad blood," according to the release (RAND release, 1/25). However, Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles, said that past discrimination against African Americans is not an excuse for allowing HIV/AIDS-related myths to continue. "It's a huge barrier to HIV prevention in black communities," Wilson said, adding, "There's an issue around conspiracy theory and urban myths. Thus we have an epidemic raging out of control, and African Americans are being disproportionately impacted in every single sense." Although African Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. population, they account for half of all new HIV infections in the country, according to CDC (Washington Post, 1/25).

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