MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Actor Charlie Sheen announced Tuesday morning that he is HIV-positive.
He said he has known about the diagnosis for four years and has been taking daily antiretroviral medications to stay healthy.
“It’s a hard three letters to absorb,” Sheen said.
Sheen’s doctor says the virus level is now undetectable in his blood.
Almost 35 years after HIV was first observed in the United States, the virus is no longer a death sentence. So, are we winning the war against HIV/AIDS? WCCO talked with Kris Ehresmann, director of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control at the Minnesota Department of Health.
“In some ways, there’s a lot of successes,” Ehresmann said. “But in other ways, when we look at our population, we know that we are not doing everything we need to.”
Antiretroviral medications are now so advanced that people taking them consistently can live long, healthy lives. The Minnesota Department of Health says 88 percent of HIV-positive people who take the drugs properly are virally suppressed, which means a doctor cannot find the virus in their blood.
But even though the antiretroviral therapy is hugely beneficial, many people with HIV do not take those medications.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates 1.2 million people in the United States are HIV-positive, but 13 percent do not know it.
“There still is a stigma and there shouldn’t be,” Ehresmann said. “People need to get tested.”
According to the CDC, men who have sex with other men are still the ones most affected by HIV. As groups, African Americans face the most severe burden because they account for 44 percent of all new cases each year.
Of those people who are officially diagnosed with HIV, the Minnesota Department of Health estimate 87 percent go on to get some kind of health care, but only 72 percent stick with that care.
Ultimately, that means only 63 percent of Minnesotans with HIV have their virus suppressed. That is still much higher than the national average of 30 percent.
As for why people do not seek treatment, experts say there are significant barriers related to poverty, mental health, chemical dependency and physical health — all in addition to the stigma the virus carries.
“They’re dealing with, you know, lots of complicating factors in their lives,” Ehresmann said. “If they don’t have stable housing, if they don’t have a situation where they know where they’re next meal is coming from, all of a sudden making sure that they’re getting medications for HIV kind of drops down on their priority list.”
Almost 14,000 people with AIDS died in the United States in 2012.