Conspiracy beliefs and knowledge about HIV origins among adolescents in Soweto, South Africa

Purpose

We examined adolescents’ knowledge regarding the origin of HIV/AIDS and correlates of beliefs surrounding conspiracy theories in Soweto, South Africa. Now, a decade post-AIDS denialism, South Africa has the largest antiretroviral therapy roll-out worldwide. However, conspiracy theories stemming from past AIDS denialism may impact HIV prevention and treatment efforts.

Methods

Study participants were recruited through the Kganya Motsha Adolescent Health Centre and the Perinatal HIV Research Unit’s Botsha Bophelo Adolescent Health Study (BBAHS). Adolescents were eligible to participate if aged 14–19 years and living in Soweto. We calculated the proportion of adolescents who correctly believed that HIV originated from non-human primates, and used contingency table analysis and logistic regression modeling to describe correlates associated with accurate knowledge and beliefs in conspiracy theories.

Results

Of 830 adolescents, 168 (20.2%) participants correctly identified HIV as originating from chimpanzees and one third (n = 71, 8.6%) believed in a conspiracy theory about the origins of HIV, including that it originated from the US government (2.3%), the pharmaceutical industry (2.2%), a vaccine (2.1%), space (1.5%), and a scientist (0.6%). Participants who were more likely to correctly identify the origin of HIV were older, men, and unemployed. Participants who were men, unemployed or students, and who had a parent or close relative who had died of HIV, were more likely to believe in a conspiracy theory regarding the origins of HIV.

Conclusions

Adolescents living in Soweto did not have high levels of accurate knowledge regarding the origins of HIV/AIDS and conspiracy beliefs were present among a small minority of participants. Accurate knowledge of the origins of HIV and debunking myths are important for improving uptake of HIV prevention tools in this population.