The results of our study showed that the willingness of urban residents (73.0%) to undergo HIV testing was significantly lower than that among rural residents (78.8%). Willingness to participate in free HIV testing were slightly lower than those found in studies carried out among high-risk populations in China (from 78.0% to 94.0%) [12
]. Willingness to undergo HIV testing in this study (78.8% rural; 73.0% urban) was greater than that of participants in the only published study of the general public, aged 18–45
years, carried out between October 2005 and February 2006 in Guizhou Province, China (43.5%) [22
]. The difference may be due to time trends. With the further promotion of HIV knowledge and relevant policy, people may be more willing to accept a free HIV test. Simultaneously, the difference may also be due to the possibility of undergoing HIV testing in the nearest health care facility, which offers greater accessibility and convenience, compared with accepting a free HIV test in a VCT centre in the study in Guizhou Province. There are relatively few VCT centres in China, especially in rural areas, and they are often at a distance from the area of residence, thus visiting a VCT centre incurs costs in terms of travel and time. A study of Chinese sex workers found that participants were more willing to be tested near their workplaces [23
]. In September 2006, to reduce the number of persons with undiagnosed HIV infection, the United States Centers for Disease Control issued recommendations to implement HIV screening as part of routine medical care for all persons aged 13–64
years in all health care settings, based on ensured privacy and confidentiality and referral to prevention and clinical services as necessary [24
]. However, further studies are needed to find suitable protocols and sites of HIV testing among high-risk groups and the general population, such as combining HIV testing with other health examinations, and integrating VCT services into existing health centres in China.
HIV-related knowledge awareness was lower than that found in studies among high-risk populations in Heilongjiang Province [25
]. In our study, overall HIV-related knowledge awareness among rural residents was lower than that among urban residents. Similar results were found in studies in 2005 in Hubei Province and Liaoning Province, China [27
]. This indicates a need for further education about HIV in rural areas in China. Meanwhile, While 45.0% of urban respondents and 38.0% of rural respondents could correctly identify all five items regarding important modes of HIV/AIDS transmission, only 19.8% of urban respondents and 9.3% of rural respondents could identify all six common HIV/AIDS transmission misconceptions (P
0.001). Similar results were found in the study in southwest China in 2003 [29
] and in Xinjiang in 2006 [30
]. Low awareness about HIV/AIDS transmission misconceptions highlights the need for further education about these misconceptions.
Univariate analysis among both urban and rural residents showed that greater total HIV/AIDS knowledge was significantly associated with greater willingness to participate in free HIV testing, which suggests that the wider and more accurate an individual’s HIV-related knowledge, the more willing he or she will be to accept a free HIV test. In our study, stigma was not associated with willingness to undergo testing in urban areas, while there was a trend toward an association in rural areas. Liu’s path analysis in a rural area of China found that stigmatizing attitudes were only indirectly associated with intention to disclose HIV serostatus through perceived stigma [31
]. Further study is needed to document the relationship between willingness to participate in free HIV tests and other stigma indicators.
Multivariate regression analysis of willingness to participate in HIV testing among both urban and rural residents showed that the awareness that an apparently healthy person can be a carrier of HIV was significantly associated with greater willingness to participate in HIV testing. This finding is consistent with Sarker’s study in Burkina Faso [32
] and Gage’s study in Uganda [33
]. There was no significant difference between male and female among urban residents. However, males were more willing to participate in free tests than females among rural residents, similar to results found in the study by Liu among rural residents in China [20
]. It is possible that rural females have less access to health information in China. Urban residents with lower education level were more willing to participate in free HIV testing. This result is consistent with the findings among the general population in the United States [34
]. Urban residents with better knowledge of HIV transmission misconceptions were more willing to participate in free HIV testing. Possible explanations are that misconceptions about modes of HIV transmission could heighten the fear of infecting another person or being infected via daily life contact, thus reducing willingness to participate HIV testing. In contrast, rural residents who had better knowledge of HIV transmission modes were more willing to participate in free HIV testing. It may be that knowledge of HIV transmission modes strengthens the perception of infection risk, thus increasing willingness to participate in HIV testing. We conclude that HIV/AIDS education needs to be improved to increase willingness to undergo HIV testing among the general population in Heilongjiang, with particular emphasis on HIV transmission modes in rural areas, and on dispelling misconceptions about HIV transmission modes in urban areas.
The most common reason for unwillingness to accept free HIV tests was participants’ belief that they had not personally been exposed to HIV. The results suggest that when people are conscious of their risk for HIV, they are more willing to participate in HIV testing. Another reason was that respondents were not willing to know their test results. This suggests that the respondents thought they could not benefit from awareness of their serostatus. Therefore, programs to improve knowledge about HIV treatment should be carried out, so that people know that early and compliant treatment can improve the quality and length of HIV carriers’ and AIDS patients’ lives, and mother-to-child transmission of HIV can be prevented [35
]. Efforts should also be promoted to inform people about Chinese HIV-related policies, such as the “Four Free and One Care” policy [39
]. The policy includes free antiretroviral drugs for those who cannot afford to pay, testing, prevention of mother-to-child transmission, and schooling of orphans [40
The study has some limitations. First, although the study results indicates willingness to test in the general population are high, not all who are willing to test for HIV will actually do so over time. Therefore, further studies as to the circumstances under which residents will actually accept testing are needed (e.g., education about HIV-related knowledge and policies, suitable styles and sites of HIV testing, privacy and confidentiality protection, and clinical services). Secondly, our questionnaire might not reflect all aspects of stigma or bias, as we only studied the association of public stigmatising attitudes and willingness to participate in HIV testing. Thirdly, as the sample was not a perfect random sample, some selection bias may exist. another limitation of the analysis are non-response bias, however the relatively high response rate (98.8%) might minimise this bias. Finally, owing to the cross sectional nature of this study, these data should be interpreted as associations rather than implying causality. Despite the limitations, our findings provide valuable information for HIV test. The findings highlight that education on HIV/AIDS needs to be improved to increase willingness for HIV testing among the general public, especially emphasising knowledge of HIV transmission modes in rural areas and countering misconceptions of HIV transmission modes in urban areas.