HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - South East Mississippi Rural Health Initiative's Director of Social Services hopes Charlie Sheen's announcement that he is HIV positive helps start conversations about stigma surrounding the virus in the Pine Belt.
"Stigma is the largest barrier to HIV/AIDS care and treatment," said Tonya Green, director of social services. "That's the hardest part of our job every single day is trying to reduce stigma."
Sheen said in his interview on the TODAY Show that he spent more than $10 million to keep his illness a secret.
"I think I release myself from this prison today," Sheen said Tuesday.
Each year, Green said Forrest County is one of the top five counties with the highest rates of new HIV cases, and Hattiesburg Family Health Center sees hundreds of HIV patients every month.
"We're actually the second largest provider of HIV care in the state, so last year we served over 800 HIV infected clients," Green said. "So we see on average about 150 to 200 HIV patients per month."
Mississippi is not alone. According to the CDC, the south accounted for 45 percent of all new AIDS diagnoses in 2010.
Green said she was surprised that Sheen's HIV status disclosure was such a big media event, but also said she understands there are lots of mental hurdles to work through when a patient is diagnosed.
"You know, he's a famous actor, and, of course, if someone may have known his HIV status, it could affect him becoming employed in movies," Green said. "Also, it could affect his relationship with his children, family, so there's really a lot to lose."
Sheen said, "It's a hard three letters to absorb, you know? It's a turning point in one's life."
Green said patients in Hattiesburg have many of the same hesitations and concerns.
"People are still losing their jobs because of discrimination," Green said. "Churches sometimes don't welcome those patients who are HIV positive. Families will sometimes disown an HIV positive family member."
Green said HIV has evolved into a "moral disease," which she said can impact HIV treatment and testing rates.
"A lot of things that really disrupt their treatment is stigma," Green said. "I've heard stories (that) patients have to hide their medications at home because they haven't told their family that they're HIV positive, and when you create barriers to treatment, it reduces the likelihood that a patient is going to be adherent to care and treatment. People don't want to be tested for HIV because 'they feel like they've done something wrong' or 'they're being singled out.'"
"Supporters of these laws say they deter people from spreading the virus and set a standard for disclosure and precautions in an ongoing epidemic," ProPublica states. "But critics say they thwart public health goals because they stigmatize the disease."
"HIV criminalization laws do increase stigma," Green said. "I mean, there are some HIV-infected people in other states that have gone to jail because they spit on someone, and they were HIV positive. So those criminalization laws do impact stigma. It continues to drive it, and that's why those patients who are HIV positive tend to be silent."
Green said the best thing Sheen can do now is use his name recognition to help the everyday people living with the virus.
"The best thing a celebrity can do to benefit everyone who is HIV positive, is to use their [sic] national platform to actually be an HIV/AIDS advocate," she said.
Sheen said in his TODAY Show interview, "I have a responsibility now to better myself and to help a lot of other people."
Magic Johnson, probably the most well-know celebrity with the virus, tweeted yesterday that he hopes Sheen joins him in "educating the world about HIV/AIDS."
Green said the number of HIV/AIDS cases will not decrease until people are more comfortable talking about the disease and the appropriate preventative measures.
"The only way that we're going to control this epidemic is we're going to have to start those tough conversations," she said. "We're going to have to really start that conversation on a more consistent basis, not just when a celebrity becomes HIV positive."
Green said Hattiesburg Family Health Center will have free HIV testing on Dec. 1 for World AIDS Day. Everyone tested will be entered into a raffle for a flat screen TV. Green said those kinds of events make getting tested more comfortable.