Why we need to rethink HIV attitudes


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Robert Klitzman: Many U.S. states still have laws criminalizing potential HIV exposure

Time has therefore come to re-examine these laws and our attitudes, he says

Editor’s Note: Robert Klitzman is a professor of psychiatry and director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University. He is author of “The Ethics Police?: The Struggle to Make Human Research Safe.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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We can all learn from their plight, and what it says not just about those facing tough choices today, but preventing countless others having to face these decisions in future.

I was aghast and wondered whether to stop the interview and tell him he was wrong to do this. Some might argue that I should in fact have called the police and had him arrested.

I tried to keep my cool and instead asked him why he didn’t tell them. “I figure they’re out there sleeping with other guys, just like me,” he replied very matter-of-factly. “HIV is out there. I assume they know all about it.”

Robert Klitzman
Robert Klitzman

His comments, and his justification for his behavior, have haunted me ever since.

This conversation occurred several years ago, before HIV medications were more widely available. But I have thought back to this conversation when I read about Charlie Sheen’s announcement in November that he is HIV-infected and has paid millions of dollars to keep his diagnosis secret.

Sheen’s infection is unfortunate, but his public announcement and subsequent revelations that at least one former girlfriend is suing him for allegedly not disclosing his HIV-status have important broader implications that have not received attention but should. I hope that when he appears on “The Dr. Oz Show” this week, that maybe they will.

Most importantly, Sheen’s case should remind us of the similar plights that millions of other people in the United States and abroad face daily. Despite enormous advances in treatment and prevention, secrecy, lies, stigma, shame and misunderstandings about HIV and AIDS continue.

The truth is that in the early 1980s until the mid- to late 1990s, HIV/AIDS was essentially a death sentence. But thanks to progress in medications and research, that is no longer the case. Unfortunately, laws and public attitudes have failed to keep up. That needs to change.