Actor Charlie Sheen's announcement this morning that he is HIV positive may seem like bleak news, but like others infected with the virus, he could have a relatively normal life, doctors say.
"I am, in fact, HIV positive," Sheen, 50, told Matt Lauer on the NBC show "Today," adding that when he learned of his status about four years ago, it was "a hard three letters to absorb." "It's a turning point in one's life," he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1.2 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV. Though the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a serious infection, the levels of the virus in a person's body can be controlled with a handful of drugs, and many people living with the virus have a normal life span, said Dr. David Rosenthal, medical director at the Center for Young Adult, Adolescent and Pediatric HIV at the North Shore-LIJ Health System, in Great Neck, New York. [10 Celebrities with Chronic Illnesses]
"It's much more like a chronic illness," said Rosenthal, who is not involved in treating Sheen.
HIV destroys the so-called T-cells of the immune system, making it difficult for people infected with the virus to fight off infections.
It is spread through certain bodily fluids, including blood, semen, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids and breast milk, according to the CDC. The virus is most commonly transmitted through sharing needles or having unprotected sex with an infected person. However, Sheen said he is not sure how he got HIV.
In the 1980s, an infection with the virus was a sure death sentence. Back then, HIV infection inevitably progressed to the disease AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). A person is considered to have AIDS when HIV has wiped out many of his or her disease-fighting T-cells - typically, when there are fewer than 200 T-cells per cubic millimeter of blood. At that level, the person is even more prone to infections.
Back in the '80s, people typically lived just three years after an AIDS diagnosis, according to aids.gov.
However, with the introduction of the HIV-suppressing drug AZT in 1987, and then the introduction of a much more powerful drug mixture that combined three antiretroviral medications in 1995, the prognosis changed dramatically.
"Patients who got on the treatment early were able to suppress the virus, were able to keep their immune system strong and were able to maintain health as a result," Rosenthal said.
Sheen started taking antiviral drugs immediately after his diagnosis, and now, the levels of the virus in his blood are so low that the virus is undetectable, his physician, Dr. Robert Huizenga, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at UCLA, said on the show.
In fact, Sheen's other health problems are bigger concerns than his HIV infection, Huizenga said. "My biggest concern with Charlie as a patient is substance abuse and depression from the disease - more than what the HIV virus could do in terms of shortening his life, because it's not going to," Huizenga said on the show.