Imagine a phenomenon that elicits distress and shame by simply mentioning its name. With heightened social anxiety, preexisting stigmas and correlations between risk factors, miseducation and distrust, HIV/AIDS is a phenomenon that has spawned rumors and conspiracy theories. From conflicting statements on transmission, to claims of the existence of a secret cure, skeptical narratives about HIV/AIDS still exist. The practice of HIV prevention can be at the mercy of these rumors and conspiracy theories, and those disproportionately affected by this epidemic are often the most difficult to convince that these misinformed notions can be life threatening.
In the American Journal of Public Health, Jacob Heller, Ph.D., of SUNY College at Old Westbury, shed light on the nature of HIV/AIDS rumors and conspiracy narratives held by some in the African-American community. Dr. Heller's study had three goals:
- Establish the occurrence and pervasiveness of rumors surrounding HIV/AIDS among African Americans.
- Demonstrate the relationships between rumors and increased HIV infections among African Americans.
- Influence best practices for addressing HIV/AIDS.
Dr. Heller analyzed qualitative data gathered from secondary medical sources and multiple focus groups. He concluded that rumors pertaining to HIV/AIDS held by African Americans are rooted in historical experiences characterized by distrust and social anxieties. He also revealed that the distrust brought about by HIV/AIDS-related rumors could be addressed by strengthening relationships between African Americans and health professionals.
Although I agree with several essential themes illustrated in Dr. Heller's study, it's important to first acknowledge the space in which African Americans function. The underlying level of distrust behind rumors and conspiracy theories affiliated with HIV/AIDS is often rooted in a desire to distance oneself from other stigmatizing characteristics found within the boundaries of African-American identity itself.
In what some have called a "post-racial" existence, African Americans are still plagued by marginalized descriptors associated with skin color and culture. From one's connectedness to the African continent, to the impact of slavery, African Americans were placed at the lower realms of society, spawning ideas of the hypersexual African American that persist today.
Over time, additional stereotypes related to a lazy underclass evolved. Today, African Americans still face systemic oppression associated with increased incarceration rates, lower educational attainment, larger wage earning gaps and the crippling facets of racial discrimination.
Within his study, Dr. Heller identified primary variables associated with increased HIV transmission rates. These risk factors for HIV/AIDS carry with them a negative connotation that is, unfortunately, the basis for several stereotypes used to unfairly describe African Americans. For instance, the labeling of African Americans as hypersexual beings can be linked to unprotected sex, sex with multiple partners or a previously diagnosed sexually transmitted disease. The lazy underclass label can be associated with drug use, and with reduced access to wealth and resources needed to prevent HIV/AIDS.
HIV/AIDS can also carry shame and disgrace associated with socially unacceptable phenomena. HIV-related stigma is the result of misconceptions and a lack of knowledge and awareness that discredits those linked to the disease. The manifestation of HIV-related stigma intensifies due to other preexisting conditions, such as the divisions seen among class, racial identity and sexual identity.
The space occupied by African Americans, when coupled with HIV-related stigma, can be difficult to overcome. Thus, since the risk factors for HIV/AIDS are also rooted in negative stereotypes associated with African Americans, distancing oneself from the HIV/AIDS epidemic can be viewed as a voluntary or involuntary act to reduce the effects of yet another marginalizing identification marker.
Trusting relationships between African Americans and health professionals, and a better understanding of social anxieties faced by African Americans are needed to dispel conspiracy theories and rumors surrounding HIV/AIDS. However, we should not negate the impact of personal will to distance oneself from the disease.
African Americans represent over 40% of new HIV infections, and negative perceptions toward HIV/AIDS continue to disproportionately impact African Americans. African Americans have accepted valid and reliable information about other health issues from health professionals -- conditions that do not carry HIV's mix of stigma, stereotypes and social anxiety.
Dr. Heller's study, while thorough and noteworthy, overlooks conspiracies' function as safeguards. We need to recognize this if we are to replace rumors with realities and reduce the risk associated with distancing oneself from the stigmatizing markers of HIV/AIDS.