In one of the more ghastly moments in recent daytime television memory, a charlatan in Mexico, sought out by Charlie Sheen, claimed to have cured Sheen of his HIV. He explained that he was so confident of his success that he withdrew Sheen’s blood and injected it into himself.
The sickening story was told during a two-part interview with Sheen on The Dr. Oz Show, but it felt more like an episode of American Horror Story: AIDS.
For 30 years, activists have changed the course of HIV treatment through everything from protesting the pharmaceutical industry to successfully redesigning and accelerating the Food and Drug Administration’s clinical trial process. They are directly responsible for the life-extending medications that neutralized the HIV in Sheen’s body — the very medications he blithely tossed aside before his insane field trip to Mexico.
Sheen has the freedom to make his own treatment decisions, even stupid ones. The real culprits here are the producers of The Dr. Oz Show, who teased viewers with “provocative” developments in “Chasing the Cure!” and then provided no factual information about legitimate advances in HIV treatment.
The show also squandered the chance to explain actual HIV cure research, an exciting aspect of HIV science that provides new insights on a regular basis. Instead, Dr. Oz gave viewers the daytime freak show they have come to expect.
The role of freak was played by Sheen, a troubled drug addict and alcoholic, who answered even the simplest questions with prolonged, incoherent utterances. He was one nervous tic away from slipping out of his upholstered chair.
His distress was apparent to anyone with an ounce of empathy. The pitiful sight must have thrilled the producers, who were more than happy to trot Sheen out for our entertainment like a trained seal who has been clubbed one too many times.
When Sheen announced his HIV status on the Today show weeks earlier, it provided a high-profile teachable moment. The interview brought the phrase “undetectable viral load” into the public lexicon, and millions learned that those of us living with HIV who are on successful treatments are incapable of infecting others.
But Tiger Blood Charlie also proclaimed during that interview that HIV had infected “the wrong person” (is there a right person?) and then labeled himself an advocate for cure research — an advocate who then decided to stop treatment and begin a quixotic search of his own.
After testing HIV-positive myself in 1985, I was also seduced by fast cures and mysterious treatments. I ate shark cartilage, was hooked to an IV containing an untested compound and then monitored overnight for seizures, and once had a man come to my AIDS agency office and try to attach me to electric wires coming from a wooden box that I am fairly sure contained a car battery.
But those desperate measures were taken nearly 30 years ago. The Dr. Oz Show invited viewers into a time warp that ignored the medical advancements that are keeping people with HIV alive and healthy.
Right now, there are thousands of volunteers around the world putting their bodies on the line for HIV cure and vaccine research. The best possible antidote to the crass exploitation of The Dr. Oz Show would be for you to volunteer for one of the perfectly safe but crucial clinical studies being conducted by the HIV Vaccine Trials Network.
After two hours of misinformation on The Dr. Oz Show, real treatment advocates have our work cut out for us — simply to repair the damage.
MARK S. KING lives in Baltimore and writes the award-winning blog MyFabulousDisease.com. His book, A Place Like This, chronicles his life in Los Angeles during the dawn of the AIDS epidemic.