The actor Charlie Sheen has revealed that he is HIV positive. As a result many journalists and social media pundits are discussing the case and giving their views about Charlie Sheen. Some of the discussion taking place is unhelpful and misguided because it risks making it more difficult to stop new infections and help people living with HIV.
AIDS Concern does not know Charlie Sheen. It is inappropriate for us to comment on him and his case specifically. However, we do want to comment on some of the issues being discussed which are relevant to HIV prevention and care.
No one should be forced to publicly disclose their private health information through the media and certainly not as a result of blackmail. Forcing people to disclose their health status is a breach of human rights to privacy, dignity and respect.
The issue of disclosing HIV status is an important one for people infected in Hong Kong and around the world. When people newly diagnosed with HIV come to AIDS Concern for information and advice, the issue of disclosure is one of the most important topics we work through with them. Whether people should disclose to family and friends and their employer is a very personal issue that needs to be handled with care, especially in today’s world where rumor and misinformation can spread quickly at the touch of a button. In cases of family members and employers there is rarely risk of transmission of HIV so the issue is more about openness and being able to get support.
Unfortunately HIV is a very stigmatized medical condition. We know of many local instances where people with HIV have been treated differently or badly because they are HIV positive. Helping people with HIV to consider whether they disclose their HIV status is therefore very important and needs to be handled carefully.
When someone is diagnosed HIV positive they should consider telling their previous sexual partners. This can be difficult to do but can help those partners to check their own health. Those previous sexual partners would require support after being told they may have been exposed to HIV risks too.
The infected person can get put on medication which will reduce the HIV viral load to a very low level. However, there is still a risk of infecting others so practicing safer sex will remain important.
Some people commenting on Charlie Sheen are saying that people who have sex without a condom but in the knowledge that they are HIV positive should face criminal prosecution. AIDS Concern would always advise people to use condoms when having sex. Most countries have rejected a criminalization approach for a number of reasons. Many new HIV infections are from people who do not know that they are HIV positive. The threat of criminal sanction cannot deal with these cases. Secondly, criminalization risks stopping people from testing for HIV and seeking treatment. Without diagnosis and treatment more people will be at risk.
There are some people saying that getting HIV is a just and natural punishment for people who they say have got caught up in drugs and sex. This is a strange and unhelpful thing to say. When people are in bad situations often they need help to get out of those situations. How can it be good to wish ill health on people? This talk also makes the stigma of HIV even worse. People who get infected are very varied. Sometimes it is one episode of unsafe sex with a regular girlfriend or boyfriend.
Some people are writing that Charlie Sheen has revealed that he has AIDS. This is not true. He doesn’t have AIDS he has HIV. There is a big difference. HIV is the infection which if uncontrolled seriously damages the body’s immune system. When someone with HIV gets very sick and the body has many infections doctors will state that the person has AIDS. Charlie Sheen’s doctor says that he is on medication and the virus is suppressed in his body. Charlie Sheen has HIV but not AIDS.
AIDS Concern recently conducted a Stigma Watch study with the Chinese University of Hong Kong which showed that stigma is an everyday experience for people living with HIV. Let’s beat the stigma by being open about HIV but not by requiring people to disclose their HIV status.
For World AIDS Day this 1st December AIDS Concern will have a public education campaign about the importance of knowing your HIV status and getting tested for HIV if you think you have been at risk. For more information about HIV and testing please visit AIDS Concern’s website.
For further information, please contact
Communications Officer, AIDS Concern
Tel: 2898 4411 / 9753 9074