A tele-recruiter of the South African National Blood Service (SANBS) was suspended this week after falsely telling a donor that she was HIV-positive - a joke, he said later, intended to test her reaction. The 19-year-old donor said she was “utterly shocked and burst into tears…(and) then he said it wasn’t really true, that he just wanted to see how I’d react if he said something like that.” Knowing that she had engaged in safe sex, this donor had good reason to express disbelief and incredulity at the news she was given after donating her blood. But, given that many people – including well-educated donors – believe they can contract HIV from donating blood, one can see how rumors and myths around HIV are fuelled and spread.
In a study of attitudes and beliefs about blood donation in Nigeria, even well-educated donors believed that they could contract HIV or hepatitis from blood donation. Others were afraid of what they believed to be side effects of blood donation, including weight loss, sexual failure, convulsion and sudden death. One study of HIV and blood donation in the KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa found that “despite very sound knowledge about HIV and high risk factors, significant proportions of respondents apparently fail to make a link between high risk behaviour and lack of suitability for blood donation…A secondary but disturbing finding is repeated indications among a small minority of respondents of a desire to spread HIV if they find themselves to be HIV-positive…”
The power of beliefs – factual and fictitious - around HIV/AIDS is explored by Diane Goldstein, in her book, Once Upon a Virus: AIDS Legends and Vernacular Risk Perception. Goldstein traces “the rich tradition of AIDS legends in relation to current scholarship on belief…Since reports of the first cases of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s, contemporary, or "urban," legends about origins of the virus, modes of transmission, deliberate infection, withheld treatment, and minority genocide have proliferated…Though fascinating, intriguing, and often frightening, these narratives more than merely entertain. They warn and inform, articulate notions of risk, provide political commentary on public health actions, and offer insight into the relationship between cultural and health truths. As parts of community discourse about the nature of disease, legends provide powerful information about cultural understandings of the virus.”
Gillian Bennett (of the Folklore Society, UK) has written an interesting review of the narratives and topics explored in Once Upon a Virus. The first chapter of the book, “Tag, you’ve got AIDS: HIV in folklore and legend” explores some popular jokes, myths and children’s games involving AIDS references. Some of the issues reviewed in the “Bad people and body fluids: Contemporary legend and AIDS discourse” chapter include vernacular concerns about health, emergent meanings, tainted food and contaminated space, and deliberately infecting the other. “Banishing all the spindles from the kingdom” describes the legends of deliberate infection – the dangers of infected needles in cinema seats or of mad dancers who inject others in nightclubs – that “assert that the danger is not in the bedroom at all but ‘out there’ where we are all vulnerable.”
One wonders whether this latest tele-recruiter’s inspired idea of jokingly telling a blood donor she is HIV-positive has the potential to become another narrative of yet another chapter in the AIDS myths and urban legends book.