How do African Americans view the epidemic themselves?

A 2009 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation discovered over a fifth of black Americans cite HIV/AIDS as the most urgent health problem facing the US, significantly higher than the 6% average. (It should be noted that both figures have declined dramatically since as recently as 2004.)46 In another survey, four-fifths of African Americans believed that government spending on the disease domestically was insufficient. They also reported experiencing the highest levels of HIV-related stigma, were the most aware about transmission routes, were the most likely to have been tested, and were the ethnic group that was the most likely to say that they knew someone who was living with HIV or had died of AIDS.47

The level of concern and awareness about HIV is perhaps unsurprising given the severity of the AIDS epidemic within the black population. Though such surveys reveal higher levels of awareness among African Americans about HIV and AIDS, there are troubling signs that this is decreasing. Between 2004 and 2009, the proportion of black Americans who said they had seen, heard or read a lot about AIDS in the past year declined by almost half from 62% to 33%.48

A significant proportion of African Americans do not blame the spread of HIV on risky sexual behaviour, but instead hold the government responsible. 48% of African-Americans surveyed by Oregon State University researchers between 2002 and 2003 believed that HIV was a man-made virus. Over half (53%) believed that there was a cure for AIDS that was being withheld from the poor, and 27% thought AIDS was produced in a government laboratory. 12% thought that HIV was created and spread by the CIA and 15% thought it was a form of genocide against blacks.49
Such beliefs are perhaps understandable given the context of prejudice and exploitation that many black Americans have grown up with. Indeed, those that were found to have the most extreme conspiracy theory views in the study were unsurprisingly those that had encountered the most racism in their lives. Some cited the infamous ‘Tuskegee’ experiment as the basis for their beliefs. Conducted by the US government between 1932 and 1972, the study aimed to investigate the natural course of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis in the black population. Over 600 black men were enrolled, many of whom were infected with syphilis, but none were ever offered treatment. Many died as a consequence, fuelling outrage throughout the black community, and beyond.50

Such unethical practices have left a scar on the African American population that may never fully disappear. The conspiracy theories that they have given rise to also pose a serious risk to HIV prevention strategies, as they place the blame for infection elsewhere, and can stop individuals from taking responsibility for their own actions.51

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