Much concern exists about the increasing numbers of people in the African American community diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). By June 1994, cumulative AIDS cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) totaled over 401,000 (CDC, 1994). African Americans accounted for almost one-third of reported cases, although they represented only 12 percent of the nation's population. Although the majority of HIV-positive and AIDS cases are men, the number of reported cases among African American women and children is increasing at an alarming rate. African American children account for 56 percent of the cases among children, and African American women account for 54 percent of the cases among women (CDC, 1994).
Education about how AIDS is transmitted and prevented is the primary weapon against AIDS because there is no cure or vaccine to prevent its spread. However, a number of researchers (for example, Bell, 1989; Mays & Cochran, 1987; Thomas, Gilliam, & Iwrey, 1989) suggested that prevention strategies that target African American communities have not been culturally specific and, therefore, fail to consider the effect of values and attitudes, homophobia, racism, and economics on intervention efforts. Consequently, prevention efforts have not been very effective in halting the spread of AIDS in the African American community.
Inaccurate beliefs about AIDS in the African American community have also impeded AIDS prevention efforts. For example, many African Americans perceived AIDS as a disease of gay white men and not as a concern for them (Dalton, 1989). This belief has also characterized core community institutions, such as the African American church, which has a history of effectively mobilizing the community around issues that threaten its survival but has been slow in responding to the AIDS epidemic (Icard, Schilling, El-Bassel, & Young, 1992).
Several authors (Dawson & Hardy, 1989; Gasch, Poulson, Fullilove, & Fullilove, 1991; Thomas & Quinn, 1991) noted that some segments of the African American community believe that the AIDS epidemic was created by white society to eliminate the black population (Thomas & Quinn, 1991). For evidence, these authors have pointed to the rapid spread of AIDS in the African American community and the history of government nonresponsiveness to African American health issues (Dalton, 1989; Thomas & Quinn, 1991). Thus, many African Americans mistrust much of the information they receive about AIDS. This mistrust may manifest itself in the form of resistance, hampering the effectiveness of AIDS education strategies (Airhihenbuwa, DiClemente, Wingood, & Lowe, 1992; Dalton, 1989; Dawson & Hardy, 1989; Gasch et al., 1991; Thomas et al., 1989).
In the face of this resistance to AIDS prevention, the African American community must become proactive and take a leadership role in AIDS issues. An effective strategy against the spread of AIDS in the African American community needs to include leaders and professionals from the community. Important among the helping professions are trained social workers. African American social work students are being prepared to work in various community settings in which they can take on critical roles in response to the AIDS epidemic. These roles include providing AIDS education, offering support through individual and group counseling, and advocating for equitable and accessible services. If African American social work students are to be equipped to meet these responsibilities, educators need to have an understanding of their current attitudes and knowledge about AIDS.
Several researchers have examined attitudes and knowledge about AIDS among social work students. For example, Royse, Dhooper, and Hatch (1987) surveyed 219 students to explore how fear of AIDS might be associated with knowledge about AIDS and empathy toward persons with AIDS (PWAs). …