News and Views on Sexual Health by Dr. Verity Sullivan
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Nov 2015: The Telegraph: Charlie Sheen

What's it about?

Despite it being 2016, Charlie Sheen's disclosure that he is HIV-positive was met with judgement and a lack of compassion.

Charlie Sheen: Before you judge him, read this about HIV

You can also see this article at The Telegraph online:

What's it about?

Despite it being 2016, Charlie Sheen's disclosure that he is HIV-positive was met with judgement and a lack of compassion.

Jaws fell open today at the news that American actor and household name Charlie Sheen is HIV-positive. Speaking on the US Today Show, he revealed that he was diagnosed around four years ago and and is managing his condition successfully by taking Antiretroviral therapy (ART).

Whilst Sheen’s disclosure and highlighting of the condition is no doubt a positive step, both for him and for the wider HIV community, I have found both Sheen’s interview and the inevitable social media response tough to digest.

Sheen has revealed he paid “millions” to various people to “keep his secret” and like many others experienced “shame and stigma” and then “anger that lead to profound substance abuse” after receiving his diagnosis.

An important point to make is that when we judge one person with HIV, we project those misconceptions onto every person with HIV. And it just isn’t our place to do that.

Scanning Twitter “#CharlieSheen” was trending, but I've been naively shocked to read judgemental messages and others totally devoid of compassion.

“What does he expect after sleeping with all those women?” tweets one person, whilst another declares: “You can tell he has HIV just by looking at him.” I could go on but I won’t.

Now I’m not here to judge the behaviour of Charlie Sheen, a man I, nor anyone else bar those close to him, knows. But an important point to make is that when we judge one person with HIV, we project those misconceptions onto every person with HIV. And it just isn’t our place to do that.

However, the majority of people jumping onto their high horses aren’t doing it because they are nasty human beings. It is simply because they are uneducated and perhaps afraid of the unknown entity that is HIV.

So here are a few bits of information to dispel some of these misconceptions and hopefully raise further awareness of what HIV is and how it really can affect anyone.

1) So what is HIV?

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was discovered in the early Eighties and being told you had the disease at this time could be akin to a death sentence, both psychologically and physically. No effective treatments were available to treat the condition and being HIV-positive was heavily laced with stigma - linked to promiscuity, homosexuality, prostitutes and injecting drugs.

Some groups are at higher risk of acquiring HIV than others.

In reality, HIV is a virus that affects men, women and children and can be passed on in several ways:

• Through unprotected sex: vaginal, anal and much less commonly, oral
• Sharing needles, e.g. to inject recreational drugs
• From mother to baby in the womb

Some groups are at higher risk than others. The two groups at highest risk in the UK are men who have sex with men (MSM) and men and women from areas of the world where HIV rates are high (Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, parts of South East Asia and Russia).

2) Can it be cured?

No cure exists but HIV is now a completely manageable disease. You can take daily pills (ART), much like people do to control high blood pressure or diabetes, that keep the virus at extremely low levels in the blood, formally described as “undetectable.”

These low levels of virus mean that you can lead a healthy life with a near-normal life expectancy, the complete opposite of 30 years ago. Thanks to ART, women with the virus can also give birth to HIV-negative babies.

If you are taking pills correctly and the virus is “undetectable” you can have unprotected sex with a low risk of passing it on.

3) Can you really have sex with someone and not give it to them?

Yes. If you are taking pills correctly and the virus is “undetectable” you can have unprotected sex with an extremely low risk of passing it on. This is after discussion with your doctor and your partner about the risks.

4) Telling others

Whilst being told you have HIV is life-changing, having to tell other people has been described by some of my patients as “the hardest part.” It is impossible to predict how people will react to this news and whilst many family members/friends/employers may be supportive, there is a very real risk of rejection.

This is coupled with the pain of having to tell partners that they might be infected too and the reality that your children may be at risk.

Most patients will discuss with their doctor who they need to tell and will be given advice about how to broach this difficult subject. Partners should be informed as soon as possible and advised to take a test. It can take up to three-months to show up in your blood, so if you have had sex with someone who is HIV-positive more recently you will be invited back for a repeat test at three months to give you the all-clear.