The reaction to actor Charlie Sheen’s HIV positive status has revealed that even today, decades after the disease first came into the public consciousness, we still don’t know enough about it.

In a live interview with NBC’s Today Show, Sheen disclosed that he is HIV positive, following days of public speculation.

“I am here to admit that I am in fact HIV positive,” he said, “and I have to put a stop to this onslaught, this barrage of attacks, of sub-truths, very harmful… stories that are threatening the health of so many others.”

Executive Officer at Queensland Positive People, Simon O’Connor, says HIV still has a negative stigma attached to it.

“When a high profile person has the courage to come out and disclose their status, it does help raise awareness about the issues around HIV,” he says.

“But there is still a stigma attached to the disease which results in some people living with HIV (PLHIV) still feeling too scared to disclose their status and seek support. They don’t feel safe.”

The “stigma creates a perception that PLHIV should be avoided, which is definitely not the case. The continuing myths and misinformation around HIV continue to feed stigma and discrimination against PLHIV. ”

Contrary to popular belief, Simon says a HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.

“A lot of people certainly thought that about HIV back in the early 80s, when we didn’t know what we were dealing with or what HIV actually it was. We didn’t have anything to treat HIV with and people were dying because we didn’t really know what to do to counteract it,” he says.

“In 1996 we had a major breakthrough; we found that it was much more effective to treat the virus with a combination of medicines, what we call ‘combination therapy’ rather than using one drug ‘mono-therapy’. We then saw the death rate of HIV drop dramatically.”

“We have managed to isolate the virus and come up with more effective treatments. We have continued to develop them, so that they were much more tolerable for PLHIV. This has resulted in two benefits – PLHIV being able to experience improved levels of health and well-being so they can live normal lives, and secondly, keeping the virus at below levels of detection with effective treatments means that it is far more difficult to transmit HIV.”

Simon says HIV is now a chronically manageable disease.

“It’s all about regularly monitoring your health and staying as healthy as possible. If PLHIV look after their immune system and actively participate in managing their health, there is no reason why someone with HIV can’t life a happy and normal life,” he says.

Chair of the HIV Foundation and Sexual Health Physician, Dr Darren Russell, says Charlie Sheen’s announcement is a good thing for people with HIV.

“I think it’s a very brave thing and good for all people with HIV,” he says. “It puts a face on HIV and hopefully that’s a mechanism to get more awareness out there.

“Although he’s lived an erratic life he’s been able to keep up with his medications and manage his HIV. It just goes to show how easy it is to take the medication and manage the disease these days.

“People will be having water cooler discussions over this and hopefully that encourages them to find out more about the disease.”

Darren says although there has been a big shift in attitude toward HIV, there is still a long way to go.

“People don’t know much about the medications available for HIV, people can live long and fulfilling lives with them,” he says.

“This is something we can do with HIV now that we could never do in the past.”

Executive Director of Queensland Aids Council, Michael Scott, says there needs to be more education and awareness about HIV.

“I don’t necessarily think Charlie Sheen’s announcement is going to change much because there still needs to be change in thinking and people need understand more about the disease,” he says.

“There are still stigmas attached to HIV, which can be quite crippling for people with HIV. We need to face that and address it.

“There has been a change in thinking, with more information about the disease and the medications available out there. However, I do still believe that there are people out there who have a poor education about the disease and they still attach HIV to a death sentence.”

Michael says HIV has a dramatic impact on people’s lives.

“We encourage people to go on treatments as soon as they are diagnosed to reduce the impact the virus has on the body,” he says.

But it’s not just the physical effects that can change someone’s life — it’s also the psychological.

“There’s a huge psychological impact, with the discrimination attached to HIV diagnosis and living with it. People just don’t understand it.”

For more information about HIV, visit www.hivfoundation.org.auwww.qpp.net.au, and www.qahc.org.au.