MYTH still plays an important role in how people in some townships understand the spread of HIV/Aids according to research conducted by a Wits sociology professor.

Prof David Dickinson has written up his findings about myths in a paper titled Hunting Myths, Finding Theories: Folk and Lay Understandings of Aids in South African Townships.

Dickinson worked with peer educators in Mpumalanga to try and understand Aids myths and how and why they persist.

The research found they could group explanations for the pandemic into three areas: scientific, folk theories and “popular core ideas drawn from common sense and observation”.

The study identifies eighty myths or “myth variations”. Some interviewees believed there was a racial conspiracy targeted at controlling the black population. Others believed white doctors injected black patients with HIV and some people thought HIV was placed in condoms’ lubricant.

For some people the ultimate explanation for HIV infection was witchcraft and the role of ancestors, which had seen people having faith in herbal remedies and traditional healers. Dickinson said the belief in witchcraft shifted personal responsibility from individuals and “externalised it to personal enemies”.

Some individuals holding traditional beliefs believed that taboo sexual contact, for instance with a widow who has not been cleansed, could result in their getting infected.

“Some Christians think that HIV is a result of sex outside marriage, a disease of the last days, and that God can cure Aids,” said Dickinson.  Sex outside marriage was also believed to result in HIV infection, while some people thought their faith in God could stop them from being infected even if they did not use condoms.

Examples of common sense thinking appeared in partner selection. People with characteristics such as beauty, youth, fat, old, educated, trusted or “healthy-looking” people were not likely to have HIV. Similarly people who were not sex workers and did not have blood on their genitals were not likely to have HIV. Others believed that sex with an old woman and shallow penetration was safe.

Dickinson said his research was not statistically valid.

“The research was qualitative in nature. It is not statistically valid, nor can we say that it is representative of SA townships in general. There are a number of reasons as to why it is not possible to collect data on Aids myths that could be considered statistically reliable. This is a reflection on the bluntness of instruments, such as questionnaires, that could be used to collect large data samples.”

Wits Vuvuzela asked some Witsies what they thought of myths surrounding Aids.

“The problem on our continent is people are conservative and want to hold on to their beliefs. Medical facts and science are not trusted because they are said to be from whites. And medical facts would require that you are responsible for your own health, which people don’t want to do,” said Robin Mdluli, 2nd year law.

Kagiso Magoele, BSc quantity surveying 2nd year, said the media had a big influence on people’s lives and there were supposed to be more educational programmes on how HIV/Aids is contracted.

Dickinson has published a book that touches on Aids myths, Changing the Course of AIDS: Peer Education in South Africa and its Lessons for the Global Crisis. In 2011 it was estimated there were 5.38-million South Africans with HIV.