Study finds minorities distrust AIDS awareness messages

  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • February 20, 2009 @ 11:00 AM

A new study penned by University of Chicago researchers says that minorities in the city are distrustful of AIDS awareness messages, and are fearful of the stigma attached to AIDS, making them less likely to seek treatment.

The study, which will be released at a symposium at the Chicago Cultural Center next week, looked at seven focus groups of college students, including blacks, Latinos, whites, males, females and gay men.

Their attitudes demonstrated that AIDS awareness initiatives targeted at young people – and blacks, in particular – failed to resonate, says Anjanette Chan Tack, a doctoral student who worked on the study. A 30-second public service announcement bookended by sexually suggestive programming struck participants as ironic.

“They were saying, ‘OK, sure, you’ve got this flash on the screen for 30 seconds…but this in a sea of music videos where people are engaging in sex,’” she says. “You don’t see people using protection; all this stuff is glamorized, and in the middle there is a commercial telling you to protect yourself.”

Participants wondered how they could take the messaging seriously, Chan Tack says.

There is also a deeply ingrained suspicion of government, stemming from instances like the Tuskegee Experiment, in which doctors invited poor sharecroppers with syphillis into a treatment program for other purposes, but instead studied how the disease ravaged the body.

“These youth are surprisingly aware of the racial history of the U.S.,” says Chan Tack.

Furthering the problem, Chan Tack says, is that participants noticed a decline in awareness campaigns in the media, making them feel left out. They also see more AIDS awareness in white communities.

“They feel a little forgotten and abandoned,” she says. “‘They said, ‘They’re worried about AIDS in Africa, but not with us.’”

The study, which looked at focus groups totaling about 70 young people, also revealed that cultural attitudes inhibit HIV/AIDS awareness. Some in the Latino community see HIV/AIDS testing as an admission of guilt, while others – especially women – don’t feel empowered to demand condom use, Chan Tack says.

She added that focus group participants found members of their own communities more credible than the celebrities often enlisted for public-service messages.

Johnathon Briggs, spokesman for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, says the finding is an important one for public-heath groups.

“That’s precisely why we’re trying to move away from campaigns and talk more about a movement,” Briggs says. The AIDS Foundation of Chicago hopes to engage young people with peer-to-peer messaging, he says. Activists working with his organization are creating ring tones mimicking popular songs to stoke the interest of their friends.

In the end, Briggs says, AIDS awareness might find more success if the messaging is more subtle.

“I think we’ve been beating people over the head with it so much, maybe that’s not the best approach,” he says.

The study findings highlight the complexity of AIDS, says Gary Harper, a DePaul University psychology professor who studies issues related to the disease.

“The thing that makes it more complicated is that HIV is not like other health issues that are primarily about the transmission of a virus or bacteria," he says.

HIV/AIDS brings with it issues of racism, homophobia and other sociopolitical factors.

The study was funded by The Children’s Place, a non-profit group that works with young people battling AIDS.

“When you look at the infection rate in Illinois, the percentage of the epidemic that is represented by youth has been growing over the last five years,” says Cathy Krieger, president of The Children’s Place.

Between 30 and 50 percent of new infections occur in people between the ages of 13 and 24, she says. Those statistics prompted the organization to look at the deeper issues behind the numbers.

The bottom line of the study, according to Krieger, is that “different things work for different people. It is really a matter of justice that everyone has the opportunity to hear HIV prevention methods that work for them.”

Krieger says one of the most interesting findings was blacks’ distrust of traditional conduits used to disseminate AIDS messages.

“There’s been a disconnect between government and health institutions in the black community,” she says.

The study will be released next Friday at the Illinois Youth and HIV/AIDS Forum at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17