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HIV Conspiracy Beliefs Not a Barrier to Minority Participation in Research

Madison, Wisconsin - Conspiracy theories about the origins of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the role of the government in the AIDS epidemic remain prevalent among racial and ethnic minorities, but a new UW-Madison study shows that despite those views, African Americans and Mexican Americans are much more willing than whites to participate in HIV vaccine research.

The study, published online Aug. 24 in the Journal of Internal General Medicine, was designed to measure institutional trust in health care among diverse populations and to investigate relationships among trust, race/ethnicity, HIV conspiracy beliefs and willingness to participate in medical research.

“While misinformation about HIV research and treatment continues to circulate, it may be less a barrier to minority recruitment into research than was originally thought,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, assistant professor in the departments of medicine and population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “Our study suggests that historically low levels of minority participation in medical research may be more a reflection of inadequate or inappropriately targeted recruitment efforts than a widespread endorsement of conspiracy theories and distrust in the medical establishment.” 

The cross-sectional study of 601 community-recruited individuals in the Chicago metropolitan area found that all racial and ethnic groups held HIV conspiracy beliefs to some degree, but a greater percentage of African-Americans (59 percent, n=201) and Mexican Americans (58.6%, n=195) endorsed them than non-Hispanic whites (38.9 percent, n=198). Endorsing such beliefs, however, did not appear to influence respondents’ willingness to participate in an HIV vaccine study:

  • 58 percent of African-Americans surveyed said they were willing to participate in HIV vaccine research, compared to 49 percent of Mexican-Americans and 38 percent of whites.
  • 81 percent of Mexican-Americans surveyed said they already agreed to participate in a HIV study, compared to 70 percent of African-Americans and 51 percent of whites.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-Americans and Hispanic/Latino Americans in 2009 made up 13 and 16 percent respectively of the general U.S. population but accounted for 43 and 19 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS. Westergaard says that because these minorities are disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic, they may derive greater benefit from participation in HIV research.

“In order for prevention research to be appropriately representative of the at-risk population, researchers must recruit minorities in relatively high proportions,” Westergaard says. “We hope these findings will illuminate a path forward, not only for increased participation in research, but also to help repair some of the distrust that still exists among some minorities.”

Westergaard says future research should seek to understand the roots of these beliefs among all racial and ethnic groups and explain why these beliefs persist when scientific knowledge and the capacity to communicate health information to the public have reached unprecedented levels of sophistication.

Other researchers involved in the study include Dr. Mary Catherine Beach from Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Somnath Saha from Oregon Health and Sciences University, and Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs from UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health (1R21HD057473-01A1 and K23DA032306), the Wisconsin Partnership Program and the Health Innovation Program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

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