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HIV-Related Knowledge and Stigma --- United States, 2000

An essential component of efforts to prevent new human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infections in the United States is the use of voluntary HIV counseling and testing by persons at risk for HIV, especially members of underserved populations (1). To increase the number of persons at risk for HIV who receive voluntary HIV counseling and testing services, barriers to these services must be identified and removed. The stigmatization of persons infected with HIV and the groups most affected by HIV, including men who have sex with men and illicit drug users, is a barrier to testing (2,3). Measuring public attitudes and knowledge about HIV transmission to determine the prevalence and the correlates of stigmatizing attitudes is important for guiding efforts to remove barriers to HIV prevention. This report describes the results of a national public opinion survey conducted through the Internet to measure indicators of HIV-related stigma and knowledge of HIV transmission. The findings indicate that most persons do not have stigmatizing views.

During August--September 2000, Research Triangle Institute conducted an Internet-based, household survey in a sample of 7493 adults aged >18 years. The sample was proportionately selected from a nationally representative panel of approximately 45,000 households. To establish the panel, a sample of U.S. households obtained through random-digit--dialed telephone sampling was offered Internet access and equipment in exchange for participation in weekly surveys. Surveys were conducted using a standard television set connected to the Internet, and responses were entered using a remote control. A module on HIV-related stigma and knowledge of transmission was included in a larger survey on health and aging. This analysis is based on 5641 respondents (75.3%) who answered the question on HIV stigma.

The survey included one question that was considered a proxy indicator for a stigmatizing attitude. Participants were identified who strongly agreed or agreed with the statement "People who got AIDS [acquired immunodeficiency syndrome] through sex or drug use have gotten what they deserve." Although this question addresses only one element of HIV/AIDS stigma, for this report, these answers were considered a "stigmatizing" response. Two questions concerned knowledge about HIV transmission. Persons who responded that it was very unlikely or impossible to become infected through sharing a glass or being coughed or sneezed on were considered informed; those who stated that it was very likely, somewhat likely, or somewhat unlikely were classified as misinformed. Percentage estimates were weighted to provide representative estimates, and confidence intervals (CIs) and p-values were computed using SUDAAN.

Among the 5641 respondents, 40.2% (95% CI=38.8%--41.6%) responded that HIV transmission could occur (i.e., it was very likely, somewhat likely, or somewhat unlikely) through sharing a glass, and 41.1% (CI=39.7%--42.5%) responded that it could occur from being coughed or sneezed on by an HIV-infected person. A total of 18.7% responded that persons who acquired AIDS through sex or drug use have gotten what they deserve. Stigmatizing responses were more common among men (21.5%), whites (20.8%), persons aged >55 years (30.0%), those with only a high school education (22.1%), those with an income <$30,000 (23.4%), and those in poorer health compared with others (23.6%) (Table 1). For both transmission questions, approximately 25% of those who were misinformed gave stigmatizing responses, compared with approximately 14% who were informed (p<0.05).

Reported by: DA Lentine, JC Hersey, VG Iannacchione, GH Laird, K McClamroch, L Thalji, Research Triangle Institute, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Prevention Informatics Office, Office of the Director; Behavioral Intervention Research Br, Div of HIV/AIDS Prevention--Intervention Research and Support, National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention, CDC.

Editorial Note:

The findings in this report suggest that most U.S. adults do not hold stigmatizing views about persons with HIV infection or AIDS. However, a substantial minority gave a response that suggests they may have stigmatizing attitudes about persons with HIV. The smallest proportion of respondents who gave this response was black, the racial/ethnic group with the highest rates of AIDS in the United States. Significantly more of the respondents who were misinformed about HIV transmission gave a stigmatizing response, suggesting that increasing understanding about behaviors related to HIV transmission may result in lower levels of stigmatizing beliefs about infected persons. However, many other factors are probably related to stigma.

Early HIV diagnosis and entry into health care have both individual and societal benefits: improved health and productivity, reduced hospitalization costs, and decreased transmission from persons who do not know their HIV status (1). Because most HIV-infected persons probably will adopt safer sexual behaviors after the diagnosis of HIV infection (4,5), increasing the number of infected persons who know their serostatus is an important prevention goal. However, HIV-infected persons who fear being stigmatized are typically reluctant to acknowledge risk behaviors, avoid seeking prevention information, and may experience real or perceived barriers to prevention and other health-care services (2,3). Therefore, public health measures that encourage access to HIV testing by reducing stigma (e.g., social marketing campaigns targeted to high risk, stigmatized populations; sexuality and cultural sensitivity training for health-care providers; and anonymous testing opportunities) strengthen HIV-prevention efforts.

The findings in this report are subject to at least two limitations. First, the results are based on only one question about stigma, which comprises a range of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Second, the survey did not include persons who do not own a telephone, persons in institutions, the transient or homeless, and those living on military installations. Despite these limitations, the sampling methods eliminated the main bias in earlier Internet samples (i.e., a lack of universal access to the Internet) while preserving the advantages of Internet surveys. In addition, the panel closely matched the overall U.S. population with respect to age, race/ethnicity, sex, education, and income.

Stigma includes prejudice and active discrimination directed toward persons either perceived to be or actually infected with HIV and the social groups and persons with whom they are associated (3). Overcoming stigma is an important step in persons seeking to know their HIV status. Measurements such as those conducted in this study help to direct and assess efforts to overcome these barriers.


  1. Valdiserri RO. HIV counseling and testing: its evolving role in HIV prevention. AIDS Educ Prev 1997;9:2--13.
  2. Chesney M, Smith A. Critical delays in HIV testing and care: the potential role of stigma. American Behavioral Scientist 1999;42:1162--74.
  3. Herek G. AIDS and stigma. American Behavioral Scientist 1999;42:1106--16.
  4. CDC. Adoption of protective behaviors among persons with recent HIV infection and diagnosis---Alabama, New Jersey, and Tennessee, 1997--1998. MMWR 2000;49:512--5.
  5. Weinhardt LS, Carey MP, Johnson BT, Bickham NL. Effects of HIV counseling and testing on sexual risk behavior: a meta-analytic review of published research, 1985--1997. Am J Public Health 1999;89:1397--405.

Table 1

Table 1
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