Research Article: Use of dietary supplements among people living with HIV/AIDS is associated with vulnerability to medical misinformation on the internet

Date Published: January 10, 2012

Publisher: BioMed Central

Author(s): Seth C Kalichman, Chauncey Cherry, Denise White, Miche’l Jones, Moira O Kalichman, Mervi A Detorio, Angela M Caliendo, Raymond F Schinazi.


Use of dietary supplements is common among people living with HIV/AIDS. Because dietary supplements are used in the context of other health behaviors, they may have direct and indirect health benefits. However, supplements may also be associated with vulnerability to medical misinformation and unfounded health claims. We examined use of dietary supplements among people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWH) and the association between use of dietary supplements and believing medical misinformation.

A convenience sample of 268 men and 76 women living with HIV was recruited from AIDS services and clinics in Atlanta, GA. Participants completed measures of demographic and health characteristics, dietary supplement use, beliefs about dietary supplements, internet use, and an internet evaluation task designed to assess vulnerability to medical misinformation.

One out of four PLWH currently used at least one dietary supplement product excluding vitamins. Dietary supplement use was associated with higher education and greater use of the internet for health-related information. Dietary supplement users also endorsed greater believability and trust in unfounded claims for HIV cures.

Dietary supplement use is common among PLWH and is associated with a broad array of health information seeking behaviors. Interventions are needed to reduce the vulnerability of PLWH, particularly dietary supplement users, to medical misinformation propagated on the internet.

Partial Text

Dietary supplements play an important role in the lives of many people living with chronic and often life-threatening medical conditions. Dietary supplements generally consist of diverse products that are typically not part of current mainstream, conventional health care [1]. Concerns about dietary supplements generally stem from the potential for adverse interactions with conventional medicines and patients replacing evidence-based health care with untested remedies[2]. Studies show that dietary supplements are often used by people living with HIV infection. The most common dietary supplements in people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWH) are used to ‘boost immune functioning’ such as mega-dose vitamins, and anti-oxidants and body cleansing products such as teas and herbs to remove ‘toxins'[3]. As many as half of PLWH may use complementary and alternative medicines, which can include dietary supplements [4].

A convenience sample of 268 men and 76 women was recruited from AIDS services, health care providers, social service agencies, and infectious disease clinics in Atlanta, GA. Results showed 26% (N = 93) currently used at least one dietary supplement. (see Table 1) The most commonly used dietary products were antioxidants and teas. Seventy percent (N = 65) of dietary supplement users reported currently using two or more products. There were no statistically significant differences in dietary supplement use between genders; men used an average of 0.82 (SD = 1.8) dietary supplement products compared to women who used 0.60 (SD = 1.45) products, t(df = 342) = 0.3. Among persons who reported current use of dietary supplements, men spent an average $49.85 and women spent $34.29 per month on these products, a non-significant difference, t(df = 343) = 0.5.

Results of the current study demonstrated that one in four participants currently used at least one dietary supplement product. The overall use of dietary supplements in this sample was similar to past research with other medical populations. For example, a study of chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients found that 44% had used dietary supplements [26]. Previous research with PLWH also demonstrated similar use, such as a study of HIV positive men that found 69% used complementary medicine products and practices, the most common of which were dietary supplements [4].

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

SCK conceptualized the study, contributed to the data analyses, and prepared the manuscript. CC managed the study and implemented the study protocol. DW conducted interviews and performed quality assurance for interview data. MJ conducted interviews and performed quality assurance for interview data. MOK implemented the study protocol, managed the pill count data, and contributed to the study design.