Charlie Sheen has disclosed that he is living with HIV.

After, by his own admission, paying millions to try to maintain his privacy, he has decided to instead control the story and go public.

Let’s get some things clear from the off: Whatever you may think about Charlie Sheen, and the choices that he has made in his life, his HIV status is not a moral judgement. HIV is a virus. It is incapable of judgment or thought.

HIV does not equal AIDS. Someone living with HIV, who has access to treatment is very unlikely to progress to AIDS. Very few people do nowadays. The majority of those who receive an AIDS diagnosis in the UK do so because they were diagnosed late and did not access treatment.

If someone is on treatment and undetectable (when the level of HIV in your blood drops below the point at which it can be detected by a standard HIV viral load test) they still have HIV. They have not been cured but they are very unlikely to pass the virus on to their sexual partners. About 95% of people living with HIV in the UK who are on treatment are now undetectable. 

As someone concerned about HIV, about preventing new infections and supporting all people living with the virus, I’ve been eager to see more people be open about their HIV status. I’ll admit that Charlie Sheen isn’t the role model I might have hoped for but I salute him, as I would anyone who has the courage to be open about their HIV status.

HIV remains one of the most stigmatised of all viral infections, a hangover from the days when there was no effective treatment, where the virus could go undetected for years, prompting doom-laden advertising featuring icebergs and tombstones. No other sexually transmitted infection carries the same power to strike fear into the hearts of the population.

Considering the millions of people who are now living with the virus globally, the list of people in the public eye who do so openly is still exceedingly short. Charlie Sheen now joins a small group which also includes the singers John Grant, Holly Johnson and Andy Bell and, in politics, the former MP and now Lord Chris Smith as well as a couple of candidates at the last General Election.

It is helpful to have people in the public eye who are open about their HIV status. They can inform others (uninfected or undiagnosed) about how much the situation has changed for those of us who are living with HIV since combination therapy became widely available.

People with HIV are everywhere. We are all nationalities, all religions, young and old, gay, bisexual and straight. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have access to treatment are likely to be working full-time, in jobs as stressful or as trivial as any other section of society.

When we are undetectable, pretty much all the fear that HIV-negative people have of those of us living with HIV is just wasted energy. In the first two years of an Australian study, which looked at gay and straight relationships, nobody with an undetectable viral load passed the virus to their partner. An undetectable viral load is a better prevention method against HIV than using a condom (and yes, combining an undetectable viral load with condom use is a doubly-safe approach, making the odds of transmission so low they’re not really worthy of consideration). 

I salute all of those members of the HIV community who have had the courage to stand up and say: “Yes, I have HIV”. I have been living with diagnosed HIV for seventeen years now. It’s not the most important part of me but it is constantly with me and I will not deny it. 

Being open about your HIV status is still a brave thing to do. But if more of us are willing to do it, the easier it will be for all. There is far too much ignorance about HIV in our society. The greater the number of people who are willing to answer questions, address concerns, and challenge myths and prejudice, the more informed the coming generations will be. 

Coming out of the closet, as lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people know all too well, requires courage. However, it is by coming out that we can inform others, it is by coming out that we can change hearts and minds. Charlie Sheen has made some pretty good films and some poor choices but his enduring legacy may prove to be his willingness to break out of the viral closet.


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