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."