Lessons from Charlie Sheen's story
World AIDS Day is commemorated on December 1 every year and is intended to raise awareness and show support for people living with HIV. Even with the best efforts of its organisers, World AIDS Day events could hardly compete with the public interest that Charlie Sheen's announcement that he has HIV has generated.
Many of the issues surrounding HIV have come into keen focus since Sheen's announcement. I will highlight some of them: Stigma and discrimination are still alive and well. In breaking the news, Sheen said that he had paid more than $10 million to various persons to conceal his condition. Immediately, one wonders whether Sheen's willingness to pay extortionists was driven by fear that he would be ostracised and become unable to get work if his diagnosis became public knowledge. Now that his condition is known to the world, we will watch how that unfolds.
Although Sheen has asserted that it is impossible for him to have transmitted HIV to any of his many, many sexual partners, further stories surrounding that issue could still unfold. One example is the statement by one of his former girlfriends that they lived together for one year, had sexual intercourse, and that he never revealed his status to her. Another example is a statement by Sheen's former co-star, Jenny McCarthy, that suggests that his failure to disclose his condition could be a criminal issue. She said that the information should have been shared with his on-screen love interests. In McCarthy's case, Sheen's manager said that he contracted the disease some years after the two stopped appearing together on Two and a Half Men.
What we do know from a case in Iowa involving Katharine Richards and Lonnie Shane Tabor is that a crime could be committed by someone who transmits HIV to a sexual partner. In that case, Richards was involved in a relationship with Tabor for three years before she found out that he had HIV. The sad fact is that Richards learnt of Tabor's condition from a police officer who was involved in a case against Tabor for attempted sexual assault. Tabor had been arrested while Richards was away on vacation.
By the time Richards, who was previously uninfected, made the discovery she had already contracted HIV. Although Tabor was charged for assault and felony transmission of HIV, he was eventually convicted of felony transmission of HIV and the assault charge was dropped. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Only six years after his imprisonment, Tabor could be released on parole because the laws in Iowa have been relaxed. It is only in cases in which there is deliberate transmission of HIV to an uninfected person without that person's consent that a 25-year sentence can be imposed. In other cases, less severe penalties may be imposed.
The changes in those laws relate to the fact that HIV is no longer viewed as the death sentence it was thought to be many years ago. In Richards' case, her condition is well controlled due to medication and Sheen's story goes on to say that, as a result of the treatment he has received, his HIV is undetectable.
While I will not comment on the likely outcome of any civil law suits that might be brought against Sheen to recover damages for assault or negligence whether his sexual partners contracted the virus from him or not, those claims could also be on the horizon. The persons whom he had not notified of his condition before engaging in sexual activities could allege that they suffered mental distress or anguish from being in jeopardy of infection. For those unwitting participants who may have contracted HIV as a result of their encounter with Sheen, they may also seek compensation to cover the cost of a lifetime of medications to treat the virus.
The many stories about breakthrough drugs and proper management of the disease are encouraging, but eradication is the ultimate goal. Until that day, however, abstinence is the only foolproof method of prevention. Otherwise, sexual-health education and public education to eliminate stigma and discrimination remain the best options to minimise the spread of HIV and all other sexually transmitted infections.