Via PlusNews.

Thirty years after the discovery of AIDS, conspiracy theories that posit the virus as man-made continue to enjoy support among a segment of South African youth – and these beliefs may be putting them at greater risk of HIV infection.

A representative survey of more than 3,000 South Africans between the ages of 20 and 29 years in the greater Cape Town area has found that black South Africans were eight times more likely to believe AIDS conspiracy theories, specifically that scientists engineered HIV.

Among black respondents, 20 percent believed that HIV was man-made and created by scientists as an attack on people of African descent, according to a University of Cape Town (UCT) study.

New research by Nicoli Nattrass, director of the AIDS and Society Research Unit at UCT, also found that AIDS conspiracy believers are 50 percent less likely to report having used a condom the last time they had sex than non-believers. Respondents with traditional values, and those who had lower socio-economic status but were not religious, were more likely to believe there was a conspiracy.

The Nattrass research, co-authored with colleague, Eduard Grebe and presented at the 1st HIV Social Sciences and Humanities Conference in Durban, South Africa, also showed that people who had heard of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a South African AIDS lobby group, were much less likely to believe a conspiracy existed and twice as likely to use condoms.

“We picked up the effect of TAC in counteracting conspiracy theories,” Nattrass told IRIN/PlusNews. “It’s another way to show the importance of civil society resistance to the [former] government.”

TAC strenuously opposed not only South Africa’s former health minister, Dr MantoTshabalala-Msimang, but also former South African President Thabo Mbeki over their AIDS denialism and his administration’s delay in rolling out HIV treatment.

AIDS conspiracy origins

The research will be included in a forthcoming book by Nattrass on the effects and history of AIDS conspiracy theories, and their origins as a Cold War propaganda tool by the East German state security service, known as Stasi, and the national security agency of the former Soviet Union, the KGB.

The conspiracy theories were then taken up by right-wing white supremacists in the US and expounded in a book, “Behold the Pale Horse”, excerpts of which were circulated by Tshabalala-Msimang to her nine provincial counterparts, according to Nattrass.

Given the deep distrust of Western science, and the history of racial oppression of African Americans and black South Africans, Nattrass said it was understandable that the prevalence of AIDS conspiracy beliefs would be higher in segments of both these populations.

“There’s definitely a racialized aspect to this,” Nattrass told IRIN/PlusNews. “Most anthropologists tend to look at it as a narrative of resistance against stigmatization; against imperialist discourses by policy-makers.”

In a review of existing research on the prevalence of AIDS conspiracy beliefs by Nattrass, up to 80 percent of surveyed African-American respondents believed HIV was man-made. US studies have found a strong link between AIDS conspiracy theories and lack of condom use, not testing for HIV and not adhering to antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. In South Africa such theories have been associated with never testing for HIV.

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