Originally created 01/31/05

AIDS groups fight effects of conspiracy theories

SAVANNAH, Ga. - While distributing condoms and doing HIV/AIDS outreach at Savannah bars on Fridays, volunteer Godfrey Gibbison hears various comments.

The most upsetting one comes from men between the ages of 18 and 24. They say: "I'm going to get this thing anyway. So I might as well as go ahead and get it now, so I don't have to worry about it."

They understand the potential danger but aren't getting the message about prevention - such as using condoms - even though AIDS has been in the United States for more than 20 years, Mr. Gibbison said.

Such a common attitude toward prevention is why Savannah HIV/AIDS experts aren't shocked by study findings released this month.

The study finds that many black Americans believe AIDS is a government plot against them and that the men most likely to believe such a conspiracy theory are the least likely to use condoms.

"We're not surprised," said Mark Douglas, the executive director of My Brothaz HOME Inc. in Savannah, which offers HIV/AIDS prevention information and testing.

"Many Americans, including minorities, distrust the health-care system because of access issues - insurance and location, cultural competence factors including lack of diversity in service providers," Mr. Douglas said.

In the study, which appears in Tuesday's issue of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, researchers from Rand Corp. and Oregon State University conducted a random telephone survey of 500 black Americans age 15 to 44.

The survey, supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, took place from 2002-03.

About 59 percent of those surveyed said "a lot of information about AIDS is being held back from the public," and 53 percent said "there is a cure for AIDS, but it is being withheld from the poor."

Twenty-seven percent said they thought "AIDS was produced in a government laboratory."

About 16 percent agreed with a statement that AIDS was created by the government to control the black population. About 15 percent said they thought the disease is a form of genocide against black Americans.

Those theories might be based on history.

More than three decades ago, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which nearly 400 poor black men with syphilis from Macon County, Ala., were not given proper treatment.

The study, which began in 1932 and lasted 40 years, was conducted to determine from autopsies what the disease does to the human body. The men were not told they had syphilis and were not given penicillin, even after it became a standard cure for the disease in 1947.

But Mr. Douglas says AIDS conspiracy theories lessen personal responsibility.

For example, the study found black men's consistent condom use dropped as their conspiracy beliefs grew.

"Many persons just want to believe myths and refuse to accept the work that needs to be done by all of us," Mr. Douglas said.

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