Popular HIV Myths and Conspiracy Theories

CIA logo on floor of CIA headquarters
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While HIV conspiracy theories are hardly a new phenomenon, stretching as far back to the AIDS denialist campaigns of the early 1980s, the impact of these beliefs continues to confound many public healthcare efforts.

According to 2013 study conducted by researchers at UCLA, nearly one in three Americans age 50 and older held an HIV conspiracy belief, a figure which aligns closely to an earlier study in which one in three African Americans believed that HIV was created in a government lab.

In many ways, these figures are hardly surprising insofar as the mistrust of government can often run high in marginalized communities. The perceived and/or real failures of public health authorities, compounded by a broader mistrust of society in general (in which discrimination and social inequality are often seen as pervasive) can serve as endorsements of these oft-shared beliefs.

Others regularly stated beliefs include:

  • The withholding of a cure or vaccine by government.
  • HIV being used to control or kill off people not wanted by society.
  • People being used as guinea pigs by drug companies.

While these beliefs do not necessarily correlate with decreased HIV testing or condom use, they do not appear to significantly impact drug adherence rates. Research from the Harvard Medical School indicated that those who held HIV conspiracy beliefs were far less likely to achieve optimal adherence than those who did not. In their report, the investigators concluded:

"The prevalence of (HIV conspiracy theories) found in this and other studies...cannot be dismissed as rare or extreme. Such beliefs can ultimately contribute to decreased survival time (and further disparities) by discouraging appropriate treatment behavior."

The availability of HIV denialist messages further undermines public health efforts by validating the suspicions of those already in doubt. Many of these actively target vulnerable, at-risk communities (such s "10 Reasons Why Black People Should Not Take the HIV Test" by Curtis Cost), while others (like Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association) use powerful media platforms to perpetuate long-refuted dissident beliefs.

The Roots of HIV Conspiracy Beliefs

Conspiracy beliefs are not solely related to fears and doubts about HIV but oftentimes a reflection of the distrust many feel toward government and medical authorities in general.

According to the research published in Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, 49 percent of 1,351 Americans surveyed suspect that HIV was an intentional act of conspiracy linked to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The study, which looked at medical conspiracy theories relating to HIV and other diseases, was part of an online survey conducted from August to September 2013.

The selection of participants was weighed to best represent the U.S. population by age, ethnic group, income, and gender, while the results were correlated to determine how and if any of the beliefs affected a person's health behavior. Among the findings:

  • 49 percent either strongly believe or question whether the CIA deliberately infected a large number of African Americans under the guise of hepatitis vaccinations.
  • 60 percent either strongly believe or question whether the government is fully aware that cell phones cause cancer, but is doing nothing about it.
  • 56 percent either strongly believe or question whether the government and medical community are hiding the fact that childhood vaccines cause autism and other psychological disorders.
  • 58 percent either strongly believe or question whether the global distribution of genetically modified foods is part of an international conspiracy to shrink the world population.
  • 68 percent either strongly believe or question whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is intentionally blocking natural cures for HIV, cancer and other diseases due to pressure from drug companies.
  • 53 percent either strongly believe or question whether the fluoridation of water is simply a way to dump by-products of phosphate mines into the environment.

While some might proclaim these conspiracies laughable, the impact of these beliefs on an individual’s health behavior can often be serious or even dangerous.

According to the research, people who support conspiracy theories are seven times more likely to use herbal remedies than members of the general population. Similarly, only one-in-three conspiracists get annual physical exams compared to nearly half of American adults. They were also less likely to use sunscreen and habitually avoid annual flu inoculations (something considered vital for people with HIV).

While the report didn't correlate HIV conspiracy beliefs to HIV testing or treatment, other studies have suggested that these kinds of beliefs may be part of the reason why 20 percent of HIV-infected American are still untested and only 25 percent of those diagnosed are able to achieve undetectable viral loads, considered the measure of treatment success.

HIV as "God's Punishment"

Beyond the issue of testing and treatment, many in the public health sector are concerned that contrarian beliefs will contribute to HIV stigma already rife in many communities. A survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) suggests that some church-going populations may be particularly vulnerable.

According to the report, fully 17 percent of Americans still believe that HIV is "God's punishment" for immoral sexual behaviors, citing, among other things, the high rates of infection among men who have sex with men (MSM).

The study further revealed that individuals affiliated with certain church organizations were far more likely to hold these beliefs than others. In fact, nearly 25 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 20 percent black Protestants supported these claims, along with 21 percent of Hispanic Catholics. By contrast, only seven percent of white Catholics and 10 percent of white mainline Protestants shared these views, compared to eight percent of those unaffiliated with any religious organization.

Despite these figures, it's important to note that these sorts of beliefs are far less prevalent than they were back in 1992 when a whopping 36 percent of Americans believed that HIV was nothing less than an enactment of divine punishment.

But religion, it seems, is only part of the picture. According to the survey, the dismantling of some of the harder-line religious beliefs has done little to extinguish the societal disapproval of people living with HIV in general. In fact, an astonishing 65 percent of Americans still believe that HIV is a direct result of sexual irresponsibility, while only 25 percent assign no blame to an HIV infection.

What may be even more surprising to some is the fact that in developing countries, where HIV rates are often 1,000 times greater than in the U.S., these sorts of stigmatizing beliefs are far less prevalent. In fact, only 41% of those surveyed believe that HIV is a result of irresponsible behavior, while 48% believe that no one is to blame for being HIV-infected.

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  • Bogart, L.; Galvan, F.; Wagner,G; et al. "Conspiracy Beliefs about HIV Are Related to Antiretroviral Treatment Nonadherence among African American Men with HIV." Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes. April 2010; 53(5):648-655.
  • Bogart, L.; Galvan, F.; Wagner,G; et al. "Longitudinal Association of HIV Conspiracy Beliefs with Sexual Risk Among Black Males Living with HIV." AIDS Behavior. August 2011; 15(6):1180-1186.
  • Ford, C.; Wallace, S.; Newman,P.; et al. "Belief in AIDS-related conspiracy theories and mistrust in the government: relationship with HIV testing among at-risk older adults." Gerontologist. December 2013; 53(6):973-984.
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  • Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). "Survey | A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues." Washington, D.C.; February 26, 2014.