In a nine-country survey released today, more than 40 percent of respondents did not understand that AIDS is always a fatal disease.
The survey from the MAC AIDS Fund, a philanthropy set up by Estee Lauder-owned MAC cosmetics, involved 4,510 interviews conducted in the US, UK, Russia, France, China, India, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa. The release of the findings coincides with a Fund board meeting and comes in advance of World AIDS Day on December 1.
“The strength of the survey lies in its exclusive focus on issues related to AIDS, its span of nine countries and the fact that it poses frank, specific questions at a time when we need frank, specific answers to increase the effectiveness of our global response to the epidemic,” Nancy Mahon, Executive Director of the MAC AIDS Fund, told Reuters Health.
While most respondents believed that AIDS is always a fatal illness, many wrongly believed that a cure for HIV infection is available. For instance, 59 percent of Indians believed that a cure is available. In France, older adults were more likely than younger people to believe that the disease is curable. In the US, African-Americans were more likely than whites to think there is a cure.
“From my perspective, the most important general finding is that we have not done a good enough job educating people about HIV - the facts and reality,” Dr. Marsha Martin, director for HIV/AIDS programs in the Oakland, California mayor’s office, told Reuters Health.
“When people believe the disease is not fatal and that there is a cure, that’s because we haven’t educated them well,” Martin said.
Many people also harbor misconceptions about the availability of AIDS treatments, according to the survey. Almost 50 percent of respondents believed that most HIV-infected patients were receiving treatment, when in reality the figure is closer to 1 in 5, based on 2006 data.
However, education seems to help: in the UK, people with a higher education were more likely than those lacking a college degree to believe that most people with HIV go untreated.
The findings also highlight the prejudice, fear, and stigma that surround AIDS. Overall, almost half of respondents said they felt uncomfortable walking next to an HIV-infected person, 52 percent did not want to live in the same house, and 79 percent did not want to date someone harboring the virus.
“The most important message for those who are providing services is that they have to serve as role models in their interactions with individuals who are at risk or who are living with HIV. That would go a long way to reducing stigma in society,” Dr. Geeta Rao Gupta, President of the International Center for Research on Women, told Reuters Health.
Gender roles and difficulty in discussing safe sex practices are key contributors to the pandemic, the survey indicates. For instance, 73 percent of respondents believe that the spread of HIV is fueled, in part, by women being uncomfortable in discussing safe sex practices with their partners.
“The results of this survey coupled with the recent failure of the most promising AIDS vaccine trial underscore that we are not going to vaccinate or cure our way out of this epidemic,” Mahon emphasized.
“All of us, particularly in the funding community, need to redouble our efforts and resources and focus on basic and effective HIV prevention programs that address gender, age and race differences in a direct and culturally competent way,” Mahon added.