It emerged recently that Two and a Half Men actor Charlie Sheen, has been HIV positive for over four years. While some might think this is a step forward for HIV destigmatisation – and it probably will be in the long run – the way he went about revealing it, and the subsequent comments made, are potentially damaging.
This was revealed in an interview on American chat show The Today Show after months of rumours and speculation. Sheen discloses not wanting to pay any more in hush money as one of the reasons for his admission. Sheen had allegedly paid millions to various people who knew of his condition to keep it hidden. While it is not his responsibility to include the public and media in his personal health, paying out millions to ensure it was not known, does nothing to help the stigma of shame that many say they face.
During the same interview Sheen was asked by presenter Matt Lauer if he “knowingly or even perhaps unknowingly transmitted the HIV virus to someone else since [his] diagnosis” to which he simply replied by shaking his head and saying “impossible”. This statement was made just moments after he described himself in a dark spiral of alcoholism and drug addiction, meaning he was influenced by the above for much of the past four years. Sheen is also in no way a medical expert and saying that it was impossible to have transmitted the disease is a harmful statement and most likely difficult to be certain of.
While he may have come out with some irresponsible comments, Sheen has also done something important – he has got people talking about an illness which affects millions of people worldwide. Sheen did say that he hoped his admission would help a lot of people. A discussion like this with anyone in the public eye will get others talking, encourage testing and safe sex and break down stigma. “Hopefully with what we are doing today others may come forward and say thanks Charlie, thanks for kicking the door open,” Sheen said.
With the inevitability of a discussion surrounding HIV becoming more prominent because of this, it is important to address the stigma and misconceptions that are attached to the virus.
Executive director of HIV Ireland Niall Mulligan says that the stigma is still an issue in Ireland. “People do not have an understanding of what HIV is and what it means to be living with it. People think despite advances in medication, it will inevitably lead to death. There is a lack of understanding about how HIV is transmitted and how it can be managed. It is often associated with behaviours that are subject to moral judgements (homosexuality, drug addiction, prostitution, or promiscuity). Therefore, HIV is viewed as a moral problem rather than a medical condition.”
Despite stigma still attached to the virus, Ireland has in fact advanced in recent years. Under the Equal Status Act 2000-2008 and the Equality Act 2004 it is illegal to discriminate against people with HIV in employment, education, and in the provision of goods and services.
A common misconception regarding HIV is that it is the same as AIDS. However, this is not the case. HIV is a virus which infects and kills white blood cells and can leave the body unable to fight off infections and cancers. AIDS is a condition which causes serious damage to ones immune system and occurs if HIV is not treated. However due to modern advances in medication it is much less likely that AIDS will develop. “A person who is living with HIV can have the same life expectancy as those who are not,” explains Mulligan.
Another misconception is that only homosexual men and drug users can be affected by HIV. However, anyone who has unprotected sex or shares infected equipment could become HIV positive. According to the Gay Lesbian Equality Network, in 2013, 344 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in Ireland, 75 per cent of new HIV diagnoses were in men and 25 per cent in women, a male-to-female ratio of 3:1. While over 46 per cent of those diagnosed were homosexual, 38 per cent of people diagnosed were infected through heterosexual intercourse.
Mulligan advises that college students who are sexually active should be getting tested regularly and should be using condoms consistently. “Student Unions can promote sexual health among their peers which will hopefully dispel the myths and fears associated with HIV and STIs and make STI testing the norm on campus.”