HOUSTON, TX-- It was the interview heard around the world. Tuesday morning on the "Today Show," actor Charlie Sheen declared, "I'm here to admit that I'm HIV positive." And he has been for four years.
Houston teen Joshua Cheatham is not surprised, "All the females and no rubbers? I mean, hey, it's gonna happen."
Sheen says he went public because he was tired of paying off folks who threatened to expose his secret. Cheatham's friend Cassius Johnson thinks that's just crazy, "Normal people have HIV. Do you see them going around paying billions of dollars not to tell them? No."
Kelly Young, CEO of AIDS Foundation Houston, is a bit more sympathetic, "It made me just remember and recognize that we have so much stigma and discrimination still to overcome that he felt like he had to keep it a secret and that people felt like they could take advantage of it."
Young says just being affiliated with HIV and AIDS, she, too, has experienced stigma. "When I was getting a massage once, I actually had someone who took her hands off of me when she found out what I did for a living."
Dr. Natalie Vanek, an infectious disease specialist with Legacy Community Health Services in Montrose, has been treating HIV patients for years. She says Sheen's being forced to come out about his status reminds her of the shaming done to HIV patients back in the '80s. "He's very typical in a sense. I saw that he was diagnosed four years ago, and it's taken him this long to be public," Vanek says, "It takes some time for people to internalize it and to come to grips with it before they can share it with other people."
Vanek hopes Sheen's announcement will shine a light on how important it is to get tested. She notes, "In Texas, we have 76,000 people who have HIV, and about 18% of them are unaware that they have it."
Sheen's doctor said on "Today," Charlie has no real chance of transmitting HIV to a sexual partner as long as he controls the virus with medication and uses condoms. Vanek says there is another step his partners can take also, "PrEP is a medication called Truvada. It's taken as one pill, once a day. And if it's taken exactly correctly, it prevents HIV infection 97% of the time."
A recent study done in San Francisco with more than 600 high-risk participants (most who were men having sex with men) proved PrEP was 100% successful when taken consistently. None of them contracted HIV in the 2 1/2 year period they were taking Truvada.
This brings us to the most important point here. If there's any chance you might have HIV, get tested. "It's not a death sentence," says Young, "You can live with it." That is, as long as you take your medications.
Vanek acknowledges it can be scary, "Sometimes you have to run to the thing that you're most afraid of, and you have to go there."
"It's a disease. It requires healthcare, not judgment," says Young.
If even one person gets treatment because of Charlie Sheen's revelation, that will truly be "Winning."