The high prevalence of conspiracy theories in the US around the origins of HIV and efforts to combat the virus is not a barrier to participation in trials of vaccines for the human immunodeficiency virus, a new study indicates.

In fact, the survey led by Ryan Westergaard, of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, found that ethnic minority participants were significantly more willing than whites to volunteer for HIV vaccine research.

Previous studies, Westergaard et al noted, have suggested that higher levels of distrust among racial and ethnic minorities lead to under-representation in vaccine research.

The cross-sectional survey on ‘Racial/ethnic differences in trust in health care: HIV conspiracy beliefs and vaccine research participation’ was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Study design

Westergaard and his team asked 601 Chicago residents at various shopping centres to complete 235 questions relating to six previously described HIV conspiracy beliefs, the participants’ trust in medical research, and their willingness to take part in HIV vaccine research.   

The survey group included almost equal numbers of white (33.0%), Mexican American (32.5%) and African American (34.5%) participants. 

Multivariate models were used to compare the level of agreement with HIV conspiracy theories and attitudes to medical/HIV vaccine research among the three racial/ethnic groups, while controlling for the potential confounding effects of socioeconomic status, access to healthcare and other demographic factors.

Similar distrust

Participants from all three groups shared similar levels of distrust in medical research. Yet contrary to popular belief, the researchers found no association between endorsement of an HIV conspiracy theory and a general unwillingness to take part in research.

Specifically, African Americans and Mexican Americans were more likely to endorse one or more of six HIV conspiracy beliefs than the white participants (59.0 % and 58.6 % versus 38.9 %, respectively).

However, African and Mexican Americans were significantly more willing to participate in HIV vaccine research than whites, with odds ratios of 1.58 and 2.53, respectively.

 Racial and ethnic disparities

The survey results are important in light of the substantial racial and ethnic disparities in rates of HIV infection across the United States and in the participation of these populations in HIV research, Westergaard et al pointed out.

While minority ethnic groups comprise a majority of people living with HIV in the US, they are under-represented in HIV research.

For Westergaard and his team, these disparities are more often due to inadequate or inappropriately targeted recruitment efforts than any unwillingness among minority populations to take part in HIV studies.

“Research involving volunteer human subjects is essential in the ongoing search for an effective HIV vaccine, and in these efforts the participation by people from racial and ethnic minority groups who are most heavily affected by HIV/AIDS, is essential,” Westergaard commented.

“It is therefore heartening to note that the continued circulation of misinformation about HIV research and treatment is much less of a barrier to minority recruitment into HIV research studies than was previously feared.”