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November 17, 2015

The National Enquirer’s Story On Charlie Sheen’s HIV Status Endangers Public Health

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Earlier today, The National Enquirer reported that they’ll be releasing the story of Charlie Sheen’s “explosive secret” that he has been “hiding from the world”. They claim that “decades of debauchery have finally caught up” to him and connect his HIV-positive status with years of womanizing.

Regardless of whether their story is true, it is not only a violation of his privacy, but a public health threat in and of itself.

For starters, his “explosive secret” and so-called cover up are not part of a scandal, but a matter of personal medical privacy. And decades of “debauchery” and “womanizing” do not inevitably result in HIV transmission. Transmission can occur in a single sexual act as well as through other activities than involve the exchange of vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, seminal fluids, blood or breast milk.

It’s stories like these that further stigmatize HIV and other STIs and put the public at risk under the farcical guise of journalism and public interest. By outing those who are HIV-positive, we do nothing to protect the public (as I’m sure the National Enquirer will claim as their lofty goal); instead, we create a culture of shame and secrecy in which people are afraid to talk about sex, access sexual health services, get tested and seek treatment — all of which have the potential to reduce transmission risk. It’s no surprise that research shows that stigma is connected with higher HIV infection rates and publications that intensify this stigma are partially responsible.

HIV research and treatment have progressed significantly over the past few decades. In the US, diagnoses dropped by one third between 2002 and 2011. Life expectancy and quality of life has increased for people living with HIV. And Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) has the potential to reduce viral load to undetectable levels. We have the potential to eliminate the transmission of HIV with improved education, advocacy and access to health care. Instead, we’ve reduced HIV to a tabloid headline.

We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Should Sheen decide to speak about his HIV status, as indicated in updated headlines, that is his prerogative. As a celebrity, he has the opportunity to ignite meaningful conversations about safer sex, HIV research and stigma. Should he choose to do so, I look forward to engaging in the dialogue. Should he opt out, I hope the public will respect his decision.

Check out my discussion about Charlie Sheen and HIV on The Global Morning Show below:

Or have a listen to a similar chat with JJ and Melanie from Flow 93.5 below:

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