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Commentary & Opinion

Sean Philpott-Jones: A Withering Shine For Sheen

Earlier this week, troubled actor Charlie Sheen announced that he is HIV positive. Charlie now joins the 1 million Americans and nearly 40 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS. He also joins a small list of celebrities -- NBA star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, professional tennis player Arthur Ashe, Olympic diver Greg Louganis, fellow actor Danny Pintauro, and a handful of others -- who have gone public with their diagnoses.

The mainstream and social media response to this announcement has been interesting. A lot of Charlie's fellow celebrities have expressed sympathy or applauded him for being "brave" in revealing his diagnosis publicly. Others have shaken their heads in disbelief. A vocal minority has even suggested that he only has himself to blame, that years of risky (and often public) behaviors made his infection with HIV inevitable.

I do have a lot of sympathy for Mr. Sheen. No one deserves to be infected with HIV, regardless of how irresponsible they act. I'm also glad that he is on treatment with antiretroviral drugs, both to protect his own health and to prevent transmitting the virus to his partners. There are, however, a number of things about his case that temper my response.

First and foremost is the fact that he hid his diagnosis for years, reportedly paying millions of dollars in hush money to those who knew so that they would keep his HIV status quiet. He might be brave in coming forward now, but for nearly five years he was a bit of a coward. I also fear that he is a self-serving jerk.

What do I mean by that? Doesn't it make sense that Mr. Sheen would want to hide his HIV status in order to protect his family and his reputation? After all, stigma and discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS is still rampant, even in 2015.

In the US, HIV is still seen as a disease of gay men, prostitutes and drug users, even though some of the highest rates of new infection occur among heterosexual women of color. Those who reveal their HIV status still run the risk of losing their friends, their family, their jobs, their insurance and health care, and even their homes. For those living overseas, the problem of stigma and discrimination is even worse, often culminating in rape, violence and even death.

Despite this, I don't buy the argument that he was afraid to reveal his HIV status because it would damage his television and movie career. He damaged his career himself many years before his HIV diagnosis through increasingly outrageous public behaviors that eventually resulted in his being fired as the star of a top-rated television comedy. The main reason he is coming forward now, I suspect, is to court sympathy and to rehabilitate his image.   

Charlie has also said that he is going public with his diagnosis now so that he can stop the so-called "shakedowns" by those who knew that he was HIV positive. But the mere fact that Charlie could pay these extortionists millions of dollars to keep his status quiet shows just how atypical his experience is.  Charlie Sheen is wealthy and lives a life of privilege. He will never face the same challenges that the vast majority of those living with HIV/AIDS deal with on a day-to-day basis. For example, he has ready access to treatment and care, the average cost of which can run almost $20,000 a year. By contrast, there are millions of people for whom these drugs are unavailable, unattainable, or simply too expensive to buy. He has the money and access to keep his infection under control and to keep his partners safe, unlike the majority of those with HIV worldwide.

Don't get me wrong. I am glad that Mr. Sheen has gone public about his HIV status, I only wish he'd done so sooner and in a more appropriate way. He could have used his announcement to talk about how lucky he is compared to most of those of those living with HIV/AIDS. He could have talked about the deplorable lack of access to HIV treatment and care worldwide, a problem that could be solved for less than the cost of one month of military spending in Afghanistan and Iraq. He could have even used his mistakes to warn others about the risks of HIV and the importance of being tested. But he did not.

I wish Charlie Sheen well, and I hope that this announcement marks a turning point in a tumultuous and troubled life. But we shouldn't place Charlie on a pedestal, or make him the latest "poster boy" for those living with HIV/AIDS. 

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Dr. Sean Philpott-Jones is Director of the Bioethics Program at Union Graduate College-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Schenectady, New York. He is also Director of Union Graduate College's Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership, and Project Director of its two NIH-funded research ethics training programs in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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