In the wake of Charlie Sheen‘s revelation on Today that he is HIV-positive, medical experts affirm that life for those diagnosed has changed significantly, and for the better, in the decades since news of the disease first emerged.
On Tuesday morning, Sheen told Matt Lauer that he currently has an undetectable amount of the virus in his blood and that none of his sexual partners have contracted the disease from him. PEOPLE sought out two experts to help clarify a few key facts about the disease, the first of which is that the prognosis for people like Sheen who are living with and receiving treatment for HIV is more positive now than it’s ever been.
“It’s not like 10 or 15 years ago when [those who were infected] were taking mouthfuls of pills that made them feel more horrible than the disease,” says Karen Dykes, an infectious disease nurse practitioner and educator with 10 years experience working with HIV/AIDS patients. “Most people on HIV treatment are taking one to two pills a day. There are multiple medications in those pills but that’s the reality of it. They’re living 30, 40 years, there’s literally no timetable with how long you’re going to live with an HIV diagnosis now as long as you’re in care.”
Joel Goldman, Managing Director of The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, tells PEOPLE that with successful treatment patients today are projected to have normal or close-to-normal life expectancy.
“It’s radically different from the early days of AIDS,” says Goldman who is HIV-positive. “When I was diagnosed with HIV nearly 25 years ago, they told me I had two to three years to live, but thanks to the ART (Antiretroviral therapy) and my adherence to taking them I am still here. Unfortunately, access to this same medication is not global, and some people choose not get on ART. But, if you get on treatment you can live the life you were meant to.”
This can include a healthy sex life, as long as you take proper precautions.
“The likelihood of transmission depends on the level of virus in the HIV-positive person and the type of intercourse they engage in,” says Goldman. “Also if the person with HIV is on medication and the virus level in the blood is what is termed ‘undetectable,’ the chances of transmission are extremely low.”
“The reality is HIV is not that easy to get,” adds Dykes. “It’s only transmitted in blood, breast milk, semen and vaginal fluids. That’s the only things you can get it in, you cannot get it from casual contact whatsoever. How to have sex with someone who is positive? Condoms are recommended, the gold standard. Another option for some individuals is to go on PrEP where someone without HIV takes a medication called Truvada that can reduce their risk of getting HIV when taken. Again, the status of the HIV-positive partner, if they’re undetectable or not then you can have that discussion on safer sex and how you want to proceed.”
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No matter how things proceed with Sheen regarding how much more he will reveal about his disease, both Dykes and Goldman agree that the actor’s disclosure is good for HIV awareness.
“Any public figure that shares his or her HIV status will help reignite the conversation that is desperately needed,” says Goldman. “Especially in the U.S. where we have not seen a decrease in new infections in two decades.”
Dykes says she hopes Sheen’s story will inspire more people to get tested.
“I think it’s one of those things, when someone like Magic Johnson [revealed he had contracted HIV] and there was a big testing spree. I think it’s one of those things where you’re going to get people thinking, ‘Oh my God, this could happen to anybody.’ Getting tested is the most important thing,” she says. “If you’re sexually active and you’re a healthy person, you should be getting tested once a year. People just aren’t doing it and that’s the most important thing to get out there: People should be getting tested.”
To learn more about living with HIV/AIDS today and to contribute in the fight against the diseases, visit amfAR.org.