Even Charlie Sheen Can’t Beat The HIV Stigma

42 percent of people living with HIV have experienced negative reactions from other people, according to one study

Nov 17, 2015 at 7:14 PM ET

Charlie Sheen is fighting his HIV with medication, but even he who was once TV’s highest-paid actor can’t suppress the enduring stigma attached to the disease.

Sheen admitted he was HIV positive on Tuesday. The actor said he was diagnosed shortly after a notorious 2011 interview in which he claimed he had “adonis DNA” and “tiger blood,” and was at war with CBS, the network which later fired him from his lead role on “Two And A Half Men.”

Sheen told TODAY’s Matt Lauer he was coming forward “to put a stop to this onslaught, this barrage of attacks and sub-truths and very harmful and mercurial stories that are about me threatening the health of so many others.” The 50-year-old claimed he had paid millions of dollars to people “in my inner circle” who had threatened to make his diagnosis public. He insisted that he no longer felt stigma about having contracted the disease, but said finding out had led to a “temporary yet abysmal descent into profound substance abuse and fathomless drinking.”

Sheen’s admission was met on social media with insults and cheap shots. “Charlie Sheen is HIV positive. Should have Sheen it coming,” one Twitter user remarked,” while another posted: “The fact that ‘Two and a Half Men’ was on the air for as long as it was is more shocking than Charlie Sheen having HIV.” Some linked his diagnosis to porn performers, while others even mistook HIV for AIDS.

The biggest takeaway from the TODAY interview was that Sheen’s enormous fame and wealth amplified the difficulties of “coming out” as HIV positive. While regular folks will likely never have to deal with the alleged “shake-downs” and threats made against Sheen, many studies show Sheen is not alone in dealing with the personal disbelief, confusion, post-diagnosis shame and anger.

Even 34 years after the HIV/AIDS epidemic began, 45 percent of Americans still say they’d be uncomfortable having their food prepared by someone who is HIV positive, according to a 2011 study by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation quoted by the U.S. Centers For Disease Control And Prevention. The survey of 2,583 U.S. adults found 36 percent would be uncomfortable having a HIV-positive roommate, and 18 percent would be uncomfortable working with someone diagnosed with the disease. Sentiment towards HIV is turning, albeit slowly: In a 1987 Gallup poll, 43 percent of U.S. adults said AIDS is a punishment; by 2011, that figure had dropped to 16 percent, but almost a third still believed it was people’s own fault if they contracted the virus.

Earlier studies reported an alarming number of people living with HIV who felt marginalized. Forty-two percent of people who had disclosed they were living with the virus reported others behaved negatively towards them, according to a 2006 study in the journal AIDS and Behavior. Almost a third said others had avoided being near them, while a fifth saying they had been excluded from social events because of their HIV status. That study found no differences in stigmatization for men or women, or for different ethnic groups. If you were white, you were just as likely to be stigmatized as a black person, even though CDC data shows the latter group is disproportionally more likely to contract the virus.

We may be gradually eroding the stigma associated with HIV, but the number of new instances remains at about 50,000 new infections annually. Men who have sex with men (MSM), who accounted for just four percent for the U.S. population in 2010, contracted 78 percent of all new HIV infections in that year. Since the epidemic began, an estimated 311,087 MSM with an AIDS diagnosis have died, including an estimated 5,380 in 2012.

So why does stigma persist? The American Sexual Health Association’s Fred Wyand said stigmas exist around most diseases related to sex. “You see it across a lot of STDs; anything that needs to be examined ‘down there’.” Wyand said HIV, in particular, struggles with the same misconceptions that existed in the early days of the epidemic when there was a lot of “hysteria and ignorance,” and said that education is still lacking—even among some care providers. “A lot of healthcare providers still have their own biases. We’ve got to educate providers, parents, and teachers who may be teaching sex education. But we’ve also got to give them the tools to do that.”

Not everyone on Twitter made fun of Sheen’s announcement. As his name became the top trending topic in the U.S. after the TODAY interview, one user conceded: “I know it’s not surprising that Charlie Sheen is HIV positive, but is it really necessary to joke about it?” Another poignantly wrote: “Instead of condeming (sic) Charlie Sheen’s HIV status via a tweet, why not contact your local clinic and check yours?”