Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Charlie Sheen’s HIV+ announcement could help eliminate stigma

This past week Hollywood star Charlie Sheen shocked the world when he revealed that he was HIV positive. One of the greatest comedians of his generation, Sheen delivered the bombshell on American television network NBC’s The Today Show (USA) on Tuesday.

He referred to HIV as a “hard three letters to absorb” and the biggest turning point in one’s life. His revelation came just two weeks before the commemoration of World AIDS Day on December 1. To many, Sheen’s shocking revelation has potential to play a major role in the fight against stigma and discrimination associated with HIV. The first Motswana to go public with his HIV+ status was David Ngele in 1993.

Although not a celebrity at the time, Ngele’s public announcement shocked many, as HIV was a mythical and largely misunderstood topic in Botswana at the time. Worse, he revealed his status almost a decade before antiretroviral drugs were introduced in Botswana.  

“I thought of hanging myself…but then I started to think of the gift of life that God had given me. I am not supposed to take away that gift,” Ngele was quoted saying at the time.

More than twenty years later, Ngele is still alive, healthy and vibrant as ever. To Batswana he is an icon of the country’s globally celebrated fight against HIV/AIDS.

Although he did not disclose his status, former President Festus Mogae also publicly tested for HIV in the early 2000s. According to a UNAIDS report stigma and discrimination are among the foremost barriers to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. The report indicates that stigma and discrimination undermine HIV prevention efforts by making people afraid to seek HIV information, services and modalities to reduce their risk of infection and adopt safer behaviours. Because of stigma and discrimination people are scared that seeking information and assistance will raise suspicion about their HIV status.

Research has also shown that fear of stigma and discrimination, which can also be linked to fear of violence, discourages people living with HIV from disclosing their status even to family members and sexual partners, which eventually undermines their ability and willingness to access and adhere to treatment.

“Thus, stigma and discrimination weaken the ability of individuals and communities to protect themselves from HIV and to stay healthy if they are living with HIV,” UNAIDS says. In his World AIDS Day message for 2015, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidib├® says the world has committed to ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030, which represents an unparalleled opportunity to change the course of history for ever.

“The good news is that we now have what it takes to break this epidemic and keep it from rebounding; to prevent substantially more new HIV infections and AIDS related deaths and to eliminate HIV related stigma and discrimination,” Sidibe said. Being a famous Hollywood star Charlie Sheen’s public announcement of his status drew a lot of attention and many applauded him for his “bravery”. The actor, who said he was diagnosed four years ago (2011), penned an open letter describing the symptoms he experienced leading up to the diagnosis, and his subsequent reactions.

“Roughly four years ago, I suddenly found myself in the throes of a seismic and debilitating three-day cluster-migraine-like headache,” he wrote. Sheen said he was emergently hospitalized with what he believed to be a brain tumour or some unknown pathology. “Following a battery of endless tests that included a hideous spinal tap, it was sadly and shockingly revealed to me that I was, in fact, positive for HIV.” He described the news as a blow to his soul. “Those impossible words I absorbed and then tried to convince myself that I was stuck, suspended, or even stranded inside some kind of alternate reality or nightmare, to the absolute contrary. I was awake. It was true… reality.”The former ‘Two and a Half Men’ actor said through the guidance of his doctors he began a rigorous and intensive treatment program. Not missing a beat, a med dose, or one shred of guidance, Sheen said his viral loads quickly became undetectable. “Like every other challenge in my life, again I was victorious and kicking this disease’s ass.” The actor, known for his excessive alcohol and drug abuse said he at some point after the diagnosis had a temporary yet abysmal descent into profound substance abuse and fathomless drinking. He called it a suicide run. Despite the substance abuse Sheen said he was vigilant with his anti-viral program. “My medical team could only shake their heads as each and every blood test returned levels revealing a state of remission. Even though I might have been trying to kill myself, one thing was radically evident; the disease was not,” he wrote in the open letter.

He said he had always insisted on condoms and was honest with his condition to those he engaged with following the discovery. In conclusion, Sheen said he accepted his condition not as a curse or scourge, but rather as an opportunity and a challenge; an opportunity to help others, and a challenge to better himself. “Every day of every month, of every year, countless individuals go to work, man their stations, and fulfil their professional obligations with a host of disabilities; diseases, imperfections, hurdles, detours. These maladies range from lupus to cancer, from paralysis to blindness, from diabetes to obesity. Treated, HIV is no different.”

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