Charlie Sheen went public with his HIV-positive status Tuesday, telling the "Today" show's Matt Lauer that he is taking anti-viral medicine to suppress the viral load in his body.
"I would like to admit that I am in fact HIV positive," Sheen told Lauer. "I have to put a stop to this onslaught, this barrage of attacks and of sub-truths and very harmful and mercurial stories that are about me, that threaten the health of so many others that couldn't be further from the truth."
Sheen, who learned his diagnosis four years ago, said he was not sure how he contracted the virus. The actor told "Today" that he shared his diagnosis with people he thought he could trust, a disclosure that came back to bite him when one such individual threatened to sell photos of his anti-viral medication to tabloids. Sheen estimates that he's paid millions of dollars to keep his diagnosis a secret.
He came forward one day after the National Enquirer announced that a “dogged 18-month investigation,” dropping Nov. 18, revealed he "hid" his HIV status for four years. That Sheen made his disclosure to get ahead of a tabloid magazine's report and threats of extortion encapsulates everything that is wrong with the attitude in the U.S. toward people living with the virus.
Experts on HIV stigma and advocates for people with HIV were shocked at the notion that a publication would dedicate resources to outing someone’s HIV status.
"Engaging in that kind of witch hunt, and suggesting that having HIV is relevant to someone’s character or personality, is like insisting the moon is made of green cheese,” said Catherine Hanssens, founder of the Center for HIV Law and Policy, an organization that defends the rights of people with HIV. "It has no bearing on current reality."
Cecilia Chung, senior strategist at the Transgender Law Center, said that rather than casting light on a serious disease, the National Enquirer’s "exposé" on Sheen only serves to stigmatize people who test positive for the virus.
"Unfortunately, the sensationalism and the misinformation that has been circulating has only perpetuated unnecessary stigma, preventing many people from seeking care and getting tested," Chung said.
This is worth keeping in mind as media outlets pick apart Sheen's sexual choices, his list of previous partners or his past actions. Here are five reminders that people with HIV are no different from anyone else -- with or without a chronic infection:
1. Famous people with HIV are entitled to medical privacy.
Just because a public figure is HIV positive, that doesn’t mean they forfeit their right to medical privacy, said Darrel Cummings, chief of staff of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
"Any public figure that is honest about their HIV status or who they are, and more importantly, who advocate against discrimination, are helpful, by and large," Cummings told The Huffington Post. “But I don’t think it should be required of people to do that, and I don’t think forcing people to come out about HIV status is at all helpful."
When Magic Johnson came forward about his HIV status in 1991, he changed the face of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. and gave hope to millions of people. But Johnson wasn’t forced to disclose his HIV status. He did so on his own terms.
Sheen, on the other hand, is being forced to acknowledge a tabloid’s reporting about his viral status, and fatuous arguments about "combatting stigma" do not justify outing a public figure over his HIV status.
“The fact that this is even newsworthy -- that he has to get ahead of the news by officially 'coming out' as being a person living with HIV, in a way really speaks for itself.”
2. People with HIV were not “asking for it” and don’t “deserve it."
This stigma is almost as old as the virus itself: When the virus was first discovered in 1983, HIV/AIDS was described as the “gay plague” or “gay cancer,” punishment for a so-called "deviant sexual lifestyle."
Thankfully, we no longer live in a world where it is acceptable to make this implication. But if you’ve had more partners than average, engage in sex work, use intravenous drugs or engage in any other risky behaviors, there’s an unspoken judgment that you should have known better than to contract the virus.
But having HIV is not an invitation for judgment from anyone, said Chung. HIV status has no bearing on a person’s character or decision-making ability.
"HIV is an opportunistic disease -- all it takes is one time not using a condom or experimenting with drugs to contract the disease,” Chung told HuffPost.
"HIV is a communicable disease just like any other communicable disease," Cummings added. "There should be absolutely no blame cast upon anyone who contracts HIV, as there shouldn’t be for anyone who contracts any communicable disease."
3. People with HIV shouldn’t be treated like criminals.
Presently, 32 states and two territories in the U.S. treat HIV transmission as a criminal act. If you know you have HIV and engage in a certain kind of activity like sex work, you could receive a felony enhancement of your charge, adding years or even decades to your sentence. It implies that someone with HIV is worse than someone without HIV, said Chung.
These bigoted laws are also outdated, according to Hanssens. They don’t take into account that HIV is no longer a death sentence -- and they transform a questionable sexual judgment into a criminal act.
"People are being prosecuted and incarcerated on the basis of having HIV, and not being able to prove they disclosed," said Hanssens. "Regardless of whether they intended to harm anyone, and regardless of whether there was any risk of harming someone, regardless of whether any harm occurred."
“1.2 million Americans are living with HIV, but more than one in eight of them don’t know they have it. Why? Stigma.”
4. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if Sheen had any other disease.
There are many types of chronic diseases that can be transmitted sexually. Herpes is a virus with no cure, for example. Complications from hepatitis C, which is transmitted via sex and injection drug use, now kills more people in the U.S. than HIV/AIDS. And certain strains of HPV are the primary cause of several deadly cancers in the cervix, vagina, penis, anus and throat.
Advocates doubt that the National Enquirer would have dedicated 18 months of newsroom resources to uncover the “truth” about Sheen if he had any of these other sexually transmitted diseases -- or any chronic, medication-managed conditions, for that matter.
"If Charlie Sheen were about to announce he had a serious heart condition, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation,” said Hanssens. "The fact that this is even newsworthy -- that he has to get ahead of the news by officially 'coming out' as being a person living with HIV, in a way really speaks for itself."
5. Stigma against HIV is one of the driving forces of the epidemic.
More than 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV, but more than one in eight of them don’t know they have it. People who know they are HIV positive are more likely to take steps to prevent transmission and seek therapy to suppress the virus, which is why public health experts are huge advocates of testing.
So why would people who suspect they may be at risk of HIV delay testing? Because they see how badly people -- even wealthy celebrities like Sheen -- are treated once others find out about their status. Consider the National Enquirer’s front page treatment of Sheen: They interviewed his past partners, speculated about the precautions he did or didn’t take, and said he "hid" his status from the public, as if we were entitled to know it. A positive diagnosis often means stress and shame for anyone in that position, and Sheen’s is only magnified by his fame.
The judgment and prejudice against people with HIV is so bad that even people who know they are positive may avoid going to the doctor to get the lifesaving treatment they need. According to the University of California, San Francisco Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, 36 percent of HIV-positive adults in a nationally representative survey say they’ve experienced discrimination from a health care provider, and eight percent have even been refused medical service.
Over 12,000 people died of AIDS in 2012, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and approximately 50,000 new people are infected every year. That makes HIV stigma a deadly shame.
Additional reporting by Erin Schumaker.
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