Charlie Sheen’s very recent and very public admission that he is carrying the HIV virus has hit all the headlines. Of course although a very private thing for him he felt he had to ‘come out’ to put an end to all the rumour mongering and apparent blackmailing that was occurring from individuals trying to capitalise on the ‘dirty little secret’. Although apparently only a small group of individuals in his inner circle of friends knew, the stigma still attached to this previously lethal diagnosis still pervades through society and led to his vulnerability to blackmailers and gossipers.

But should it be that way?

HIV has been around a long time and we all remember the dramatic ‘tombstone’ adverts from the 80s and the almost instantaneous transformation of homosexuals into pariahs of society for their ‘heinous ways’. But we understand a lot more about it now, it’s method of transmission and how to control the virus before patients develop full blown AIDS.

By Charlie Sheen’s own admission, it is likely that he contracted the virus through heterosexual intercourse, possibly with a prostitute but that the virus levels in his blood are ‘almost undetectable’, having been controlled with antiretroviral drugs.

These are 2 really important points.

In UK as from 2013 there are an estimated 110 000 people living with HIV with about 26 000 being unaware that they have the virus. Nearly 60% of these are heterosexual and 40% homosexual. The commonest method of transmission being either unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse, both common practices in the heterosexual population. IV drug use is another important method of transmission and it is also worth remembering that HIV can be passed from a mother to her baby in the womb. Around 1 in 360 people have the virus although the incidences are higher in homosexual and bisexual men and black African heterosexuals. The incidence is likely to be of the order of 35 million worldwide.

The use of multiple drug regimes as part of the treatment has had a dramatic effect on survival rates for HIV and although not curative, allow many people to live long, happy and productive lives. The aim of the treatment as with Mr Sheen, is to reduce the viral load to almost zero and this has been shown to dramatically reduce the chances of developing AIDS, although adherence to the often complicated drug regime, may confound efficacy. The drugs are also not without side effects. An added benefit to the negligible viral counts achieved with these regimes, is that the treated patients also are much less infective, either through their blood or their semen.

So should society still be stigmatising HIV? I think not. There are many people out there who have it and who may have only a very limited level of infectivity and there are a lot of us without it, who by the grace of God, managed to miss contracting it by having unprotected sex. The use of the condoms is the single most important method of avoiding HIV.