HIV/AIDS Conspiracy Theories: Barriers to HIV Prevention?

Sonja Mackenzie, UC-Berkeley
Social and Behavioral

Background: Conspiracy theories have accompanied the emergence of plagues from the Middle Ages to the present day. The types of conspiracy theories associated with HIV/AIDS range from theories involving government involvement in the creation of the virus to beliefs that testing and medications themselves can be used as instruments to wipe out "undesirable" populations. HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories place HIV prevention in the context of the historical, economic and cultural context in which people become vulnerable to HIV. Conspiracy theories speak to the structural determinants of HIV and, therefore, suggest structural-level interventions to address disparities in HIV/AIDS, in contrast to the majority of HIV prevention efforts that focus on individual behaviors. In California, AfricanAmericans comprised 7% of the general population yet 21% of all reported HIV cases from 2002 - 2003. In Alameda County, African Americans are similarly overrepresented amongAIDS cases as compared to their proportion of the general population -- African American men and women constitute 15% of the general population, yet 51% of reported AIDS cases in 2002-2003. These trends indicate that current HIV prevention efforts in California are having limited success in decreasing the rates of HIV infection among African American men and women. Research on HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories has consistently found that approximately one quarter of African Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds hold conspiracy beliefs, and has concluded that they present significant challenges to HIV prevention. HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories have been hypothesized as barriers to HIV testing amongAfrican Americans; as barriers to health education and health care; as barriers to needle exchange; and as barriers to participation in research. Recent research has found stronger conspiracy beliefs among men. This study aims to contribute to the development of HIV prevention measures for African Americans by examining the ways that HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories might present barriers to HIV prevention efforts with African Americans, and by exploring gender differences in these theories.

Methods: This research presents preliminary qualitative work of a larger mixed-method dissertation project on HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories. This research will investigate through in-depth qualitative interviews the types, meaning and implications of HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories among a sample of HIV- and HIV+ African American men and women (n=40), as well as among a sample of 10 HIV prevention providers. Study participants will be recruited using targeted street-based and venue-based convenience sampling. Qualitative interviews will allow this study to generate in-depth narratives regarding if and how HIV/AIDS conspiracy narratives resonate for African American men and women; which conspiracy theories might be particularly meaningful; and a consideration of the implications of these theories on service use and on risk behaviors. The combination of interviews with community members and providers aims to generate a dataset of interviews from two key perspectives to inform prevention practice and future research.

Expected Results: At this time, a Community Meeting has been held with HIV prevention providers to launch the project. This community dialogue generated rich formative data vital to the development of this project. Pilot interviews will be conducted. Preliminary data have been collected from the Community Meeting and from an initial analysis of interviews.