AIDS Conspiracy Theory Belief Linked to Less Condom Use

Survey of black Americans raises a challenge

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga

Updated on January 25, 2005

TUESDAY, Jan. 25, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- Bolstering years of reports that many black Americans believe AIDS is a plot against them, the most extensive survey of its kind suggests that the men most likely to believe such a conspiracy theory are the least likely to use condoms.

The new research doesn't shed light on which came first -- reluctance to use condoms or a belief in secret plots. But it definitely points to a major challenge in the world of AIDS prevention, said study co-author Sheryl Thorburn, an associate professor of public health at Oregon State University.

"These beliefs are very real for some people," she said. "We need to address them and take them seriously."

While blacks make up about 12 percent of the American population, they accounted for more than half of the HIV and AIDS cases reported to the federal government in 2002, the researchers said. Health officials warn that black women are facing a rising threat of infection, in part because of black men who keep their sexual affairs with other men secret from their wives and girlfriends.

In the new study, which appears in the Feb. 1 issue of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, researchers from Rand Corp. and Oregon State University conducted a telephone survey of 500 black Americans aged 15 to 44. The survey took place from 2002-2003.

About 59 percent of those surveyed said that "a lot of information about AIDS is being held back from the public," and 53 percent thought "there is a cure for AIDS, but it is being withheld from the poor."

In response to other questions, 27 percent said they thought "AIDS was produced in a government laboratory." About 16 percent agreed with a statement that AIDS was created by the government to control the black population, and about 15 percent thought the disease is a form of genocide against black Americans.

Other studies have revealed similar distrust of the government and the medical establishment, with little or no differences between the educated and uneducated.

Some researchers attribute such beliefs to lingering skepticism ignited by the infamously cruel medical experiments from the Tuskegee study in Alabama. For 40 years, ending in 1972, federal researchers studied the effects of syphilis by denying treatment to infected black men, many of whom sickened and died. The government, through President Clinton, only apologized in 1997.

The new study went further than previous research by asking survey participants about condom use. While there seemed to be no connection between black women's conspiracy beliefs and their partners' use of condoms, the researchers found that black men's consistent condom use dropped as their conspiracy beliefs grew.

Thorburn said the study design makes it impossible to gauge exactly how much more likely black men were to avoid condoms if they believed in AIDS plots.

What does the study mean? "This is a real important wake-up call to the public health sector that we are failing miserably in the black community," said Michael Allerton, HIV operations policy leader with the Kaiser Permanente Northern California health plan.

Part of the problem, he said, is that white people in the medical community don't realize the lingering effects of the Tuskegee experiments, nor do they understand that they aren't ancient history but only ended in the 1970s.

Allerton said the key to better prevention is more involvement by the black community, including church leaders. Also, messages about prevention need to be targeted to specific communities.

"Prevention is very personal," he said. "People just think one billboard does it, but every single individual has their own set of beliefs about what's important to them."

More information

To learn more about the Tuskegee experiments, try National Public Radio.

Read this Next
About UsOur ProductsCustom SolutionsHow it’s SoldOur ResultsDeliveryContact UsBlogPrivacy PolicyFAQ