The Legalities of HIV Infection

Charlie Sheen became the talk of the nation’s press once more, but not for his usual reasons. During a live interview on The Today Show on Tuesday, Sheen announced to the world that he is HIV-positive. The 50-year-old actor was accompanied by his University of California, Los Angles, physician, Dr. Robert Huizenga, who helped explain Sheen’s diagnosis and treatment during the actor’s interview.

Sheen was diagnosed with HIV in 2011, during what he has said was a not-so-good time in his life. Since his HIV diagnosis, Sheen has taken daily antiretroviral medications, which has lowered his HIV viral count to such a low level, less than 20 copies of the virus in his blood, that the virus itself is undetectable in HIV blood tests.

Even in a patient with a low viral load, HIV lives in reservoirs inside that person’s body. To keep these virus reserves from spreading and to continue to maintain a low viral load, the infected person must take daily antiretroviral therapy or the virus will begin to spread inside the body again.

Sheen maintains that his low viral load means he cannot pass HIV to another person, even if he has unprotected sex with that person. This is partially true. Studies have shown that HIV positive persons taking daily antiretroviral therapy have just a four percent chance of passing the virus to an uninfected person during unprotected sex.

There is one thing Sheen, and anyone else living with HIV, should do for ethical reasons and must do per the law in 24 American states, including Sheen’s home state of California: tell potential sex partners he is HIV positive before any sexual encounters occur. In addition, 14 states require HIV positive people to disclose their HIV status to needle-sharing partners.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, during the early years after HIV was discovered, “a number of states implemented HIV-specific criminal exposure laws” that “impose criminal penalties on people living with HIV who know their HIV status and who potentially expose others to HIV.”

These laws were enacted before research revealed advancements in the pharmaceutical treatment of HIV, such as daily antiretroviral use that can result in a low viral load and the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). These medical findings are causing some states to take another look at their HIV exposure laws.

Note that all 50 states have general criminal laws such as attempted murder and reckless endangerment that can and have been used to prosecute HIV positive people who knowingly, willfully and maliciously infect others with the virus.

Unfortunately, there have been several media outlets who have misreported Sheen’s diagnosis and who have published stories about his HIV diagnosis that are filled with partial truths or complete exaggerations. Sheen has the right to sue print and online media outlets for libel, especially those publications who have reported he has AIDS, which is very far from the truth. AIDS is the final stage of an HIV infection and is the result of a high viral load and a secondary infection that weakens the immune system to the point that, even with treatment, death is the ultimate result. Click here to read more about the stages of HIV and how the disease is transmitted.

Instead of taking the time to explain HIV exposure risk, infection, progression of the disease and treatment options and to treat infected persons as real people, some media outlets are only interested in making a quick profit off of gossip and speculation.

The biggest offender, in my opinion, is The National Enquirer with its headline, “Decades of Debauchery have Finally Caught Up to Charlie Sheen.” HIV Equal Online posted a beautiful rebuttal to this publication: “HIV does not discriminate against people who had have one sexual partner or 5,000 sexual partners, nor should the national media.”

The best defense against contracting HIV is to use latex condoms during all sexual encounters. It is the responsibility of all parties, not just the people living with HIV, in those sexual encounters to maintain safety and trust for one another.


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