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
Dietary supplement users tend to engage in a range of health promoting behaviors [3
]. Studies of cancer patients show that actively seeking health information from multiple sources is a associated with dietary supplement use [6
]. It is common for PLWH who use dietary supplements to conceal these practices from their health care providers, potentially increasing the risks for interference with treatment plans[5
]. PLWH who use dietary supplements with the potential for adverse drug interactions are also inclined to seek health information from a variety of sources [4
], including non-traditional and fringe groups, suggesting a vulnerability to misinformation and fraudulent claims.
Access to credible health information on the internet can be an important part of patient-centered health care. Unfortunately, the internet is also a major source of medical misinformation and unconventional health promotion. Incomplete and inaccurate health information is common on the internet and for many patients unreliable information sources are indistinguishable from credible ones [7
]. Unproven cancer treatments promoted online, for example, cause significant concern and have led to measures that counter their use [11
]. Similarly, South African courts have banned the promotion of vitamins to cure AIDS [12
], after years of devastating government support for fake AIDS treatments [15
]. Anecdote-based remedies are appealing to patients with serious health conditions because they speak in certain terms about their successes, emphasize the uncertainties and side-effects of conventional medicine, prey upon anxieties, and offer unrealistic hope [6
]. Among PLWH, unsubstantiated claims by marketers of 'immune boosting products' and fake cures are often seen as credible and evoke interest in their use [9
]. However, we are not aware of research that has investigated vulnerability to medical misinformation and fake claims among dietary supplement users living with HIV/AIDS.
The purpose of the present study was to examine dietary supplement use among PLWH and its association to vulnerability to medical misinformation. First, we describe past and current use of dietary supplements in a community sample of PLWH. We then describe the demographics, health characteristics, and information seeking behaviors of current dietary supplement users compared to persons not using dietary supplements. Finally, we tested the potential vulnerability to medical misinformation among active dietary supplement users. We focused on responses to claims that HIV/AIDS can be effectively treated and cured by dietary supplements. We hypothesized that PLWH who are using dietary supplements would be more interested in and believe the claims of medical misinformation propagated on the Internet.