JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes:
Epidemiology and Social Science: Brief Report
Conspiracy Beliefs About the Origin of HIV/AIDS in Four Racial/Ethnic Groups
Ross, Michael W. PhD,*; Essien, E. James MD, DrPH,†; Torres, Isabel DrPH*
From the *WHO Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research, School of Public Health, University of Texas, and †The HIV Prevention Research Group, College of Pharmacy, University of Houston, Houston, TX.
Received for publication September 7, 2005; accepted December 15, 2005.
Reprints: Dr Michael W. Ross, WHO Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research, School of Public Health, University of Texas, PO Box 20036, Houston TX 77225 (e-mail: Michael.W.Ross@uth.tmc.edu).
Abstract: We examined beliefs about the origin of HIV as a genocidal conspiracy in men and women of four racial/ethnic groups in a street intercept sample in Houston, Texas. Groups sampled were African American, Latino, non-Hispanic white, and Asian. Highest levels of conspiracy theories were found in women, and in African American and Latino populations (over a quarter of African Americans and over a fifth of Latinos) with slightly lower rates in whites (a fifth) and Asians (less than one in ten). Reductions in condom use associated with such beliefs were however only apparent in African American men. Conspiracy beliefs were an independent predictor of reported condom use along with race/ethnicity, gender, education, and age group. Data suggest that genocidal conspiracy beliefs are relatively widespread in several racial/ethnic groups and that an understanding of the sources of these beliefs is important to determine their possible impact on HIV prevention and treatment behaviors.
Conspiracy beliefs about the origin of HIV and the role of the government in the AIDS epidemic are prevalent, particularly in the African American community. Klonoff and Landrine1 found in a random door-to-door survey of African Americans in California that 27% of African Americans endorsed the belief that "HIV/AIDS is a man-made virus that the federal government made to kill and wipe out black people", and a further 23% were unsure. More recently, Bogart and Thorburn2 conducted a random telephone survey of African Americans living in the contiguous U.S. They found that for "AIDS is a form of genocide against blacks", (5-point Likert scale, strongly agree to strongly disagree) over 20% of men and 12% of women somewhat or strongly agreed; for the question "AIDS was produced in a government laboratory", over 30% of men and 24% of women agreed. Both studies note the history of the Tuskegee syphilis study3 and its potential role in generating mistrust of the government with regard to treatment and racial discrimination and disparities in the health care system. These beliefs have potentially dangerous consequences for HIV prevention and AIDS treatment: Bogart and Thorburn note that HIV/AIDS conspiracy beliefs were significantly associated with negative condom attitudes and inconsistent condom use, and may represent a facet of negative attitudes toward condom use among black men.
Findings from a recent study on HIV vaccine acceptability among communities at risk suggest that conspiracy beliefs may be widespread and reflect substantial mistrust of the government and health care system among both African Americans and Latinos.4 In this study, a higher percentage of Latinos expressed their mistrust of the government and physicians when compared to other ethnic groups. Approximately 55% of Latinos and 50% of African Americans, for instance, reported believing that the government secretly had an HIV vaccine. HIV vaccine acceptability, in addition, was lower for those who believed physicians experiment on people without consent (Latinos 38%, African Americans 25%, Whites 15%).
This recent study suggesting that both Latinos and African Americans report HIV/AIDS conspiracy beliefs indicates that a sole focus on the African American community may obscure the possibility that conspiracy theories may be common in other populations at risk. Indeed, if they are a facet of negative condom use attitudes, they might be expected to occur in other racial and ethnic populations. We analyzed data from a study in which HIV/AIDS conspiracy beliefs were investigated in order to determine (1) their distribution in other racial/ethnic groups, and (2) their relationship to reported condom use.
Data for the present analysis came from a larger community-based anonymous survey5-7 designed to determine knowledge, misconceptions, and sources of information in minority populations regarding HIV transmission. The study relied on self-administered questionnaires and respondents were recruited from public parks, mass transit locations, malls and shopping centers in southwest and downtown areas of Houston, Texas. These neighborhoods have substantial minority populations. Data were collected in 1997-1998. Inclusion criteria were age above 18 and ability to fill out a questionnaire in English. Trained interviewers asked for participation in the study and all participants were advised that they could refuse to answer any questions and that participation was both voluntary and anonymous. Those who agreed to participate were given the questionnaire to complete and deposit in a sealed box: those who declined to participate (estimated at about 40%) were counted as non-responders. Lack of time was the excuse given by the great majority of non-responders, followed by lack of facility in English. Return of the questionnaire was taken as evidence of consent. The study was approved by the relevant university human subjects review board. The questions relevant to the present analysis were "AIDS is an agent of genocide created by the United States government to kill off minority populations" (true, false, don't know) and for condom use, "What percentage of your partners use condoms during sexual contact?" (none, 25%, 50%, 75%, 100%). Significance was set at the 5% level (2-tailed).
Demographic data on the four racial/ethnic samples are shown in Table 1. Data on proportions believing in the conspiracy question are presented in Table 2. In response to the question about the percentage of sexual partners with whom condoms are used, the African American male sample data indicated a significant relationship (χ2 = 10.87, df = 4, P =.03) in the direction of those with conspiracy beliefs (true + unsure vs false) using condoms less. Just using true vs false and excluding unsure responses produced a similar result (χ2 = 12.56, df = 3, P =.02). None of the other male or female ethnic/racial groups approached significance on this question with either trichotomized or dichotomized conspiracy beliefs.
Carrying out a multinomial logistic regression on the trivariate (yes, unsure, no) conspiracy belief variable, with race/ethnicity, gender, age group, and education level as the independent variables, only two racial/ethnic categories (African American and Latinos) were significant from the comparison group (non-Hispanic White) at P <.01 as predictors (Exp(B) = 2.83, and Exp(B) = 3.14, respectively). Using bivariate logistic regression (conspiracy beliefs true vs false, excluding "don't know" responses) on the same variables produced a similar result, with race/ethnicity as the sole significant predictor at P <.001 with Exp(B) = 2.02 and 1.36, respectively. Multiple regression analysis of the predictors of condom use (conspiracy beliefs, gender, education, race/ethnicity, age group) indicated that all of these variables were significant predictors, using a simultaneous entry strategy, at P <.02 (F = 19.66, df = 5, R2 =.073), although the variance accounted for is modest.
These data must be interpreted with the caveats that they are based on a nonrandom convenience sample, an English questionnaire, and that this is a sample collected from public places in 1998 with a refusal rate approaching half. Those not fluent in English would be underrepresented, and those who regularly frequent public places would be strongly over-represented. It is also possible that non-English-speaking Latinos may hold different levels of conspiracy beliefs from English-speaking Latinos. Nevertheless, these data do demonstrate, with the above limitations, that conspiracy beliefs are not limited to the African American population, but are almost as prevalent in the Latino sample and well represented in the non-Hispanic White sample. The Asian sample has the lowest proportion endorsing the belief that HIV/AIDS is part of a conspiracy. These data suggest that the Tuskeegee scandal may not be a full explanation of the genesis of conspiracy beliefs, and that there is a more general suspicion of the federal government as a promoter of HIV (although Tuskeegee may explain suspicion in groups other than African Americans). Exploration of factors underlying these beliefs in populations in addition to African Americans is warranted, especially as conspiracy beliefs do make a significant, though modest, independent contribution to the prediction of reported condom use.
Similar to Bogart and Thorburn's2 findings, there were no significant gender differences in conspiracy beliefs. Our African American data (29.4% agree) are close to the 26.5% "agree" finding of Klonoff and Landrine1 in African Americans in California. Our data also reproduce, albeit with somewhat differently worded items, the finding of Bogart and Thorburn2 on the prevalence of conspiracy-theory believers, and their findings that conspiracy beliefs in African American men are associated with lower reported condom use. However, this was not the case in the other racial/ethnic samples and may be specific to the African American population. The relatively high prevalence of HIV-related conspiracy beliefs, especially among Latinos, suggests that conspiracy beliefs are a phenomenon that is more widely distributed than just the African American community.
Conspiracy beliefs among Latinos may have their origin in several sources. Latinos in Texas have historically suffered racism: in the history of Texas, there were more Mexicans lynched than African Americans8 and this type of oppression becomes part of the collective consciousness of a people. Mistrust can be generalized to other institutions, including the health care system. Recent xenophobic trends in the United States have included the targeting of Latin American immigrants as the source of social and economic problems and have even led to the introduction of anti-immigrant legislation that would prohibit access to emergency rooms and limit undocumented people's access to hospitals. In the United States, African American, Puerto Rican, Chicano, indigenous, and poor women have been more likely to be sterilized than White women from the same or higher socioeconomic classes. Women with physical disabilities whom physicians judge to be "unfit to reproduce" have also been sterilized since the eugenics movement in the 1920s. By 1968, in a 30-year period, a third of the women of childbearing age had been sterilized in Puerto Rico. Sterilization abuse was so common among African American women in the South that a woman's having her fallopian tubes tied or uterus removed without her knowledge or consent was called the "Mississippi appendectomy".9 A class action suit in Los Angeles revealed that Chicano women were being sterilized immediately after giving birth. The non-English speaking women had been given sterilization consent forms in English and were told the operation was to deal with the after-affects of the pregnancy.10 Suspicion of health-related motives in Latinos, while speculative, are thus not hard to account for.
Relatively widespread beliefs in HIV conspiracy appear to occur across several racial and ethnic groups, and these data also suggest that conspiracy beliefs do make a significant contribution to explaining reported condom use. More detailed investigation into the sources of such beliefs, using qualitative approaches, are warranted, and further research into the origin of this belief is appropriate.
This research was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health (Grant number G12RR03045-11). Preparation of this manuscript was facilitated by National Institute of Mental Health grant number RO1-MH62960-01.
1. Klonoff EA, Landrine H. Do blacks believe that HIV/AIDS is a government conspiracy against them? Preventive Medicine. 1999;28:451-457.
2. Bogart LM, Thorburn S. Are HIV/AIDS conspiracy beliefs a barrier to HIV prevention among African Americans? Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes. 2005;38:213-218.
3. Jones JH. Bad blood: The Tuskegee syphilis experiment. New York: Free Press; 1993.
4. Newman PA, Cunningham WE, Lee SJ, Rudy ET, Seiden D, Duan N. (2004). HIV vaccine acceptability among communities at risk: disparities in perceived barriers and concerns (Project VIBE). Abstract submitted for The XV International AIDS Conference, 2004 (Poster Exhibition). Abstract no. TuPeD5105, http://www.iasociety.org/abstract/show.asp?abstract_id=2175787
5. Ross MW, Essien EJ, Williams ML, et al. Concordance between sexual behavior and sexual identity in street outreach samples of four racial/ethnic groups. Sexually Transmitted Diseases. 2003;30:110-113.
6. Essien EJ, Ross MW, Linares AC, et al. Perception of reliability of HIV/AIDS information sources: A comparison among whites, African Americans and Hispanics in Houston, Texas. Journal of the National Medical Association. 2000;92:269-274.
7. Essien EJ, Ross MW, Fernández-Esquer ME, et al. Reported condom use and condom use difficulties in street outreach samples of men of four racial and ethnic backgrounds. International Journal of STDs and AIDS. 2005;16:739-743.
8. Carrigan WD, Webb C. The lynching of persons of Mexican origin or descent in the United States, 1848 to 1928. Journal of Social History. 2003;37:411-438.
9. Wilcox J. The Face of Women's Health: Helen Rodriguez-Trias. American Journal of Public Health. 2002;92:566-569.
10. Stern AM. Sterilized in the name of public health: race, immigration, and reproductive control in modern California. American Journal of Public Health. 2005;95:1128-1138.
This article has been cited 28 time(s).
AIDS and BehaviorThe Impact of African Americans' Beliefs About HIV Medical Care on Treatment Adherence: A Systematic Review and Recommendations for InterventionsAIDS and Behavior
Sociology of Health & IllnessUnderstanding the origins and prevalence of AIDS conspiracy beliefs in the United States and South AfricaSociology of Health & Illness
Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved
The Effect of Conspiracy Beliefs and Trust on HIV Diagnosis, Linkage, and Retention in Young MSM with HIV
Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 24(1):
AIDS Care-Psychological and Socio-Medical Aspects of AIDS/HivFinding meaning: African American injection drug users' interpretations of testing HIV-positiveAIDS Care-Psychological and Socio-Medical Aspects of AIDS/Hiv
Women & HealthDemographic correlates of HIV testing, high-risk behaviors, and condom/STD consultation among a multi-ethnic sample of womenWomen & Health
Journal of the National Medical Association
Measuring African-American parents' cultural mistrust while in a healthcare setting: A pilot study
Journal of the National Medical Association, 99(1):
AIDS Patient Care and StdsConspiracy beliefs about HIV infection are common but not associated with delayed diagnosis or adherence to careAIDS Patient Care and Stds
AIDS Care-Psychological and Socio-Medical Aspects of AIDS/HivDecisions to participate in research: views of underserved minority drug users with or at risk for HIVAIDS Care-Psychological and Socio-Medical Aspects of AIDS/Hiv
American Journal of Public HealthBlack-white mortality from HIV in the United States before and after introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy in 1996American Journal of Public Health
AIDS Care-Psychological and Socio-Medical Aspects of AIDS/HivHIV vaccine trial preparedness among Spanish-speaking Latinos in the USAIDS Care-Psychological and Socio-Medical Aspects of AIDS/Hiv
American Journal of Public HealthStructural and Social Contexts of HIV Risk Among African AmericansAmerican Journal of Public Health
AIDS Patient Care and StdsHIV Testing and Conspiracy Beliefs Regarding the Origins of HIV among African AmericansAIDS Patient Care and Stds
American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research
Linking 'white oppression' and HIV/AIDS in American Indian etiology: Conspiracy beliefs among AI MSMs and their peers
American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research, 14(1):
Journal of the National Medical Association
Addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis in the African American community: Fact, fiction and policy
Journal of the National Medical Association, 100(1):
Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine
Rectifying Institutional Bias in Medical Research
Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 163(2):
AIDS and BehaviorDoes patient-provider racial/ethnic concordance influence ratings of trust in people with HIV infection?AIDS and Behavior
Journal of the National Medical Association
Enrollment of racial/ethnic minorities and women with HIV in clinical research studies of HIV medicines
Journal of the National Medical Association, 99(3):
Advances in conspiracy theory
Ethnicity & Disease
The Impact of Acculturation on Latinos' Perceived Barriers to Hiv Primary Care
Ethnicity & Disease, 18(4):
What African American Male Adolescents Are Telling Us about HIV Infection among Their Peers: Cultural Approaches for HIV Prevention
Social Work, 54(3):
Hiv Clinical TrialsPredictors of Retention in HIV Care Among a National Cohort of US VeteransHiv Clinical Trials
Psychosomatic MedicineThe culture of condoms: Culturally grounded variables and their association with attitudes to condomsPsychosomatic Medicine
American Journal of Public HealthPerceived Everyday Racism, Residential Segregation, and HIV Testing Among Patients at a Sexually Transmitted Disease ClinicAmerican Journal of Public Health
AIDS Education and Prevention
Hiv Treatment Optimism and Unsafe Anal Intercourse Among Hiv-Positive Men Who Have Sex With Men: Findings From the Positive Connections Study
AIDS Education and Prevention, 22(2):
Bmc Health Services ResearchA novel emergency department based prevention intervention program for people living with HIV: evaluation of early experiencesBmc Health Services Research
JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency SyndromesEndorsement of a Genocidal HIV Conspiracy as a Barrier to HIV Testing in South AfricaJAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes
JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency SyndromesConspiracy Beliefs and Trust in Information About HIV/AIDS Among Minority Men Who Have Sex With MenJAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes
JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency SyndromesConspiracy Beliefs About HIV Are Related to Antiretroviral Treatment Nonadherence Among African American Men With HIVJAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes
conspiracy beliefs; HIV/AIDS; race/ethnicity; condom use
© 2006 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
Highlight selected keywords in the article text.