Last week, Hollywood’s favorite bad boy, Charlie Sheen, revealed to the world that he is HIV-positive in an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today” show. During the interview, Sheen confessed that he had been diagnosed with the virus back in 2011 and spent millions of dollars to cover up the secret.
“It’s a hard three letters to absorb,” Sheen told Lauer. “It’s a turning point in one’s life.”
Surely, any HIV-positive patient will tell you much the same—an HIV diagnosis is a life changing diagnosis. But what you may not know is that there have been many advancements to HIV/AIDS treatment in the last two decades, and today, an HIV diagnosis is not a death sentence, much like it was considered to be in the 1980s.
“The treatment of men and women living with HIV/AIDS has exponentially improved over the past 20 years, particularly since the advent and implementation of highly active antiretroviral therapies (HAART) between 1996 and 1997,” Dr. David Moskowitz, an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Community Health at the School of Health Sciences and Practice at the New York Medical College, said. “Before the availability of these therapies, HIV infection almost universally grew into AIDS and then, death for patients. The proliferation of these drugs has turned this deadly disease into a chronic condition that is manageable.”
“Since 2005, HIV treatment has advanced as better medications have become available that are easier to take and less toxic,” echoed Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, an Infectious Disease Physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Most importantly, the last 10 years has been characterized by an increased recognition that early treatment of HIV, ideally upon diagnosis, is ideal and life-saving.”
In the United States, the bulk of medical experts would agree that HIV is very a manageable virus, and furthermore, many HIV-positive men and women go on to live long, healthy lives.
“HIV-positive people getting expert care have normal life expectancy,” says Dr. Korey Jorgensen, a certified HIV specialist from Laguna Beach California.
In fact, Jorgensen, who just last year retired after serving 21 years as Director of HIV Services at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic, believes that emotional distress associated with the stigma of a diagnosis might worsen or trigger symptoms in patients, making it the heavier burden to bear, rather than the actual health effects.
Moskowitz agrees with Jordensen in that there is stigma associated with an HIV diagnosis, and is “relatively pessimistic that the stigma and blame associated with infection will diminish much more than it already has.”
“The public never saw such discomfort or unease by journalists when Farrah Fawcett discussed her anal cancer or Michael Douglas discussed his throat cancer, both of which might have been caused by the human papilloma virus/HPV delivered sexually,” Moskowitz said. “Sheen is an exaggerated case of disclosure, granted, but at the interpersonal level and between populations regularly infected with HIV and those regularly not infected, there exists a prickliness surrounding the disease, mostly about how it was acquired.”
Both Dr. Adalja and Dr. Jorgensen echo Moskowitz’s sentiments and believe that one of the most common misconceptions about HIV is that it is a death sentence, even still today.
“Many in the general public mistakenly believe HIV to be a death sentence because they aren’t fully knowledgeable regarding the major advances that have occurred,” Dr. Adalja said.
Despite the fact that there have been significant advancements in treatment—the only way to start fighting the virus, and the stigma, is to educate the public. Charlie Sheen has unintentionally reopened the door for conversation, and with his news, there is hope that Americans can start to speak openly about treatment, and subsequently, prevention.