American Public Increasingly Blames People With AIDS and Misunderstands How HIV Is Transmitted

Many Still Express Fear and Discomfort Toward People With AIDS



Davis, CA (February 26, 2002). Fewer Americans now want to quarantine people with AIDS compared to ten years ago, but growing numbers blame people with AIDS for their illness and donít understand how AIDS is spread, according to a study reported in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The study, by Professors Gregory Herek, John Capitanio, and Keith Widaman – all members of the Psychology faculty at the University of California at Davis – compared findings from three national telephone surveys conducted in 1991, 1997, and 1999. Representative samples totaling more than 2500 American adults were asked their opinions about people with AIDS and various AIDS policies.

The researchers found a 40% increase between 1991 and 1997 in the number of Americans believing that people who got AIDS through sex or drug use deserve their illness. While 20% expressed this view in 1991, 28% did so in 1997. By 1999, the figure had declined to 25%, but was still higher than at the beginning of the decade.

They also found that many Americans still express fear and discomfort about people with AIDS. In 1999, 30% of those polled would feel uncomfortable having their children attend school with another child who has AIDS, and 22% would feel uncomfortable around an office coworker with AIDS. The proportion saying they felt afraid of people with AIDS declined from 35% in 1991, but was still one in five.

The researchers also found that mistaken beliefs about how AIDS is transmitted remain widespread, and in some cases even increased over the 1990s. In 1999, 41% believed they could get AIDS from using public toilets, compared to 34% in 1991. And 50% of those surveyed in 1999 believed that they could get AIDS from being coughed on by a person with AIDS, compared to 46% in 1991. In addition, about half of those surveyed in 1999 believed they could get AIDS by sharing a drinking glass, and one third believed that AIDS can be contracted by donating blood. Public health authorities have long known that AIDS is not transmitted through any of these routes, according to Professor Herek, the studyís principal investigator.

Professor Herek said that the survey findings also contain some good news. He noted that over the past ten years, a shrinking percentage of Americans said they would actively avoid people with AIDS. Although many would feel uncomfortable, only 9% said they would avoid an office coworker with AIDS in 1999, compared to 19% in 1991. And although 29% of those surveyed in 1999 would avoid shopping at a neighborhood grocery store whose owner has AIDS, the proportion was even higher in 1991 when 45% said they would shop elsewhere.

Professor Herek also noted that support for extremely coercive policies such as mass quarantine of people with AIDS has declined dramatically: Only 12% of those polled in 1999 agreed that people with AIDS should be separated from the rest of society, compared to 34% in 1991.

But he expressed concern that people with AIDS are still stigmatized. "The belief that AIDS is easily spread and that people with AIDS should be blamed for their illness are important ingredients of stigma," Professor Herek said. "As these perceptions become even more widespread, prejudice and discrimination against people with AIDS is also likely to increase."

Professor Herek believes that some of the problems detected in the surveys can be addressed through existing AIDS education programs.

"In the early years of the epidemic, most AIDS information programs stressed that AIDS canít be spread through casual contact such as sharing a drinking glass or being around someone who is sneezing," he said. "Itís clear that we need to revive those messages and keep reminding people how AIDS is and isnít transmitted. We also need to encourage Americans to reach out to people with AIDS and give them help and support."


Download a copy of the full report, HIV-related stigma and knowledge in the United States: Prevalence and trends, 1991-1999.

    Details about the sample and methodology
    Slide show of the study's main findings
    More about AIDS and stigma
    Selected abstracts of Dr. Herek's papers on AIDS stigma.
    HIV-Related Knowledge and Stigma - United States, 2000. From the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, December 1, 2000. Asking some of the same questions and using different data collection methods, another recent national survey found similar results.
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