Popular HIV Myths and Conspiracy Theories

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 health care efforts.

According to a 2013 study conducted by researchers at UCLA, 30% of Americans age 50 and older held an HIV conspiracy belief. People even once believed that HIV was created in a government lab.

CIA logo on floor of CIA headquarters
Alex Wong / Getty Images

In many ways, these figures are hardly surprising; 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.

Other 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 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:

"Given the prevalence of [HIV conspiracy] beliefs found in this and other studies, HIV conspiracies 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. Public commentators, such as 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 research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, 49% of 1,351 Americans surveyed agreed with at least one medical conspiracy theory and 18% agreed with three or more. Among the conspiracy theories examined in the study was the belief that the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) deliberately infected African Americans with HIV, telling them that it was part of a hepatitis inoculation program.

The 2014 study was part of an online survey conducted the previous year. The results were weighted to best represent the U.S. population by age, ethnic group, income, and gender, and the six popular medical conspiracy beliefs used in the survey were then correlated with a range of health behaviors. Among the findings:

  • 12% believe that the CIA deliberately infected a great number of African Americans under the guise of hepatitis vaccinations
  • 20% believe that health officials are fully aware that cell phones cause cancer but will not act because of corporate pressure
  • 20% believe that the government and medical communities are hiding the fact that childhood vaccines cause autism and other psychological disorders
  • 12% believe that the global distribution of genetically modified foods is part of an international conspiracy to reduce the global population
  • 37% believe that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is intentionally blocking natural cures for HIV, cancer and other diseases because of pressure from drug companies
  • 12% believe that public water fluoridation is simply a way for chemical companies to dump byproducts 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 be serious or even dangerous. According to the research, "high conspiracists" (people who believe three or more of these six medical conspiracies) were nearly three times more likely to use herbal remedies than those who believed none of the theories—but they were also less likely to use sunscreen, see a doctor for annual physical exams, or receive annual influenza inoculations (considered vital for people with HIV).

The report didn't correlate HIV conspiracy beliefs to HIV testing or treatment. Other studies, however, have suggested that these kinds of beliefs may be part of the reason why, as of 2016, 13% of the 1.2 million people in the U.S. living with HIV are unaware that they are infected, and only 30% of those diagnosed have low or 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 churchgoing populations may be particularly vulnerable.

According to the report, 14% of Americans believe that HIV is "God's punishment" for immoral sexual behavior. The study further revealed that individuals affiliated with certain church organizations were far more likely than others to hold these beliefs. For example, 24% of white evangelical Protestants, 20% of Black Protestants, and 24% of Hispanic Protestants supported these claims, as did 21% of Hispanic Catholics.

Despite these figures, it's important to note that these sorts of beliefs have become far less prevalent than they were in 1992, according to this study. At that time, 36% 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 hard-line religious beliefs has done little to extinguish societal disapproval of people living with HIV in general. An astonishing 65% of Americans surveyed still believe that HIV is a direct result of sexual irresponsibility, while only 25% say that those with HIV were infected through no fault of their own.

What may be even more surprising to some is the fact that when it comes to developing countries, where 95% of all those with HIV live, fewer of those surveyed hold the same stigmatizing beliefs: Only 41% believed that HIV in the developing world is a result of irresponsible behavior, while 48% believed that those in developing countries who contracted HIV were not at fault.

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