More than 20 years after the AIDS epidemic arrived in the United States, a significant proportion of African Americans embrace the theory that government scientists created the disease to control or wipe out their communities, according to a study released today by Rand Corp. and Oregon State University.
That belief markedly hurts efforts to prevent the spread of the disease among black Americans, the study's authors and activists said. African Americans represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to Census Bureau figures, yet they account for 50 percent of new HIV infections in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nearly half of the 500 African Americans surveyed said that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is man-made. The study, which was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, appears in the Feb. 1 edition of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes.
Produced by the government
More than one-quarter said they believed that AIDS was produced in a government laboratory, and 12 percent believed it was created and spread by the CIA.
A slight majority said they believe that a cure for AIDS is being withheld from the poor. Forty-four percent said people who take the new medicines for HIV are government guinea pigs, and 15 percent said AIDS is a form of genocide against black people.
At the same time, 75 percent said they believe medical and public health agencies are working to stop the spread of AIDS in black communities. But the responses, which varied only slightly by age, gender, education and income level, alarmed the researchers.
"As a researcher knowing that these beliefs were out there, I wasn't as surprised as people I share the study with," said Laura Bogart, a behavioral scientist for the Rand Corp., who co-authored the study with Sheryl Thorburn, associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State.
'A wake-up call to the prevention community'
"But the findings are striking, and a wake-up call to the prevention community," Bogart said. "The prevention community has not addressed conspiracy beliefs in the context of prevention. I think that a lot of people involved in prevention may not be from the community where they are trying to prevent HIV."
The findings were also no surprise to Na'im Akbar, a professor of psychology at Florida State University who specializes in African American behavior.
"This is not a bunch of crazy people running around saying they're out to get us," Akbar said. The belief "comes from the reality of 300 years of slavery and 100 years of post-slavery exploitation."
Akbar cited the Tuskegee experiment conducted by the federal government between 1932 and 1972. In it, scientists told black men they were being treated for syphilis but actually withheld treatment so they could study the course of the disease.
Today, he said, African Americans are more likely to live in communities near pollution sources, such as freeways and oil refineries, and far from health care centers. "There are a lot of indicators that our lives are not valued," Akbar said.
Blacks hard-hit by disease
Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles, said past discrimination is no longer an excuse for embracing conspiracies that allow HIV to fester.
"It's a huge barrier to HIV prevention in black communities," Wilson said. "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."
Black women made up 73 percent of new HIV cases among women in 2003, and black men represented 40 percent of new cases, according to the most recent federal figures available. Among gay men, blacks represented 30 percent of new infections, and adolescents ages 18 to 24 accounted for nearly 80 percent of new HIV cases.
"The whole notion of conspiracy theories and misinformation ... removes personal responsibility," Wilson said. "If there is this boogeyman, people say, 'Why should I use condoms? Why should I use clean needles?' And if I'm an organization, 'Why should I bother with educating my folks?' The syphilis study was real, but it happened 40 years ago, and holding on to it is killing us."