By Dawn Wolfe
On Jan. 25, http://kaisernetwork.org reported that, according to a survey done by RAND Corporation and Oregon State University, “A ‘significant proportion’ of surveyed African-Americans believe that U.S. government scientists created HIV to eradicate or ‘control’ African-American communities.” The study was published in the Feb. 1 issue of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes.
According to the http://kaisernetwork.org report, the researchers did telephone surveys of 500 African Americans aged 15-44, and “nearly half of respondents said they believe that HIV is manmade,” the Washington Post reported Jan. 25.
Among other findings, the researchers stated that 53 percent of respondents agreed that “there is a cure for AIDS, but it is being withheld from the poor,” and 44 percent agreed that people who take new antiretroviral drugs are “government guinea pigs,” according to another quote by the Washington Post.
The most frightening finding was that “African-American men who have such beliefs are less likely to use condoms to protect against HIV transmission,” according to the researchers.
Hank Millbourne, co-founder and current associate executive director for program development for AIDS Partnership Michigan, wasn’t surprised by the results of the study. According to Millbourne, he hears these conspiracy theories every semester when he lectures on HIV/AIDS at Marygrove College – “and not just from young people.”
“As a person who has worked in HIV/AIDS for the last 15 years, I’m often amazed when I step outside my HIV/AIDS world at the lack of accurate information and the prevalence of some of these theories,” Millbourne said.
Millbourne ascribed the prevalence of conspiracy theories regarding AIDS in the black community to a lack of access to health care, the original focus of the public and media on AIDS as a white, gay disease, and culturally-insensitive prevention messages.
“I am convinced that the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in black communities is not really a new phenomena, but that these alarming numbers have always been there,” said Millbourne. “It’s just that there was so much media focus on the white gay community and white gay men, that the black community was not adequately informed about that actual political, social and cultural forces which drive the epidemic.”
“I’m sure these theories affect people’s behavior particularly with respect to getting tested and seeking treatment,” he added.
People with other Michigan HIV/AIDS agencies gave mixed reports about the prevalence of conspiracy theories about HIV/AIDS among their African-American clients. According to Kymberly Moore of Detroit’s Community Health Awareness Group, who surveyed the case workers there, “The general consensus of those that work out in the field is that they have not encountered that belief.”
Patrick Lombardi, director of volunteer services with the Lansing Area AIDS Network, that while LAAN’s outreach workers haven’t heard this rumor from clients, “I was told by our case management team that six individuals have made reference to this rumor.” Last year, LAAN’s case management unit served 273 clients, 28 percent of whom were African-American.
Debra Smith, co-director of REACH, the HIV/AIDS ministy at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit, said that she was familiar with the rumor as well.
“I can’t say that the majority of people in my culture feel that way, but I have heard it over the years,” she said.
Ignorance equals death
The RAND/Oregon State University study takes on further importance in light of the Black AIDS Institute’s Feb. 1 “State of AIDS in Black America” report, which stated that “African Americans now account for 54 percent of annual new infections, though they are just 13 percent of the population.” It also said, “Studies have shown as much as a third of black gay and bisexual men under the age of 30 may be HIV positive.”
Millbourne agrees that the threat posed by these theories is real, especially when coupled with the disparity in access to health care for African-Americans.
“Numerous studies have indicated that Blacks with HIV tend to enter care/treatment at later stages in the disease process than others, are more dependent on publicly funded streams for care and die sooner than any other group,” he said.
“We have tackle these theories head on with correct and accurate information,” he added.