Arizona HIV/AIDS Experts Hope Charlie Sheen Announcement Puts Deadly Forgotten Disease Back on Radar Screen
Last week, actor Charlie Sheen announced publicly that he had known he was HIV positive for the past four years.
Lying in a hospital bed, Phoenix resident Kit Kloeckl was deathly ill and could barely breathe. He had contracted pneumonia, but treatment wasn’t working and he was getting sicker.
After a battery of tests, an infectious-disease specialist entered his hospital room with a grim expression on his face.
“You’re HIV positive,” the doctor said before turning around and abruptly leaving Kloeckl alone with his diagnosis.
“It’s the most devastating news you could possibly imagine,” says Kloeckl, 65. “Your self-worth goes in the drain. You think what a horrible person you are.”
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That was more than 10 years ago, and Kloeckl now is living with full-blown AIDS. But he’s still alive, and he’s still fighting.
Kloeckl is one of 16,608 people living with HIV or AIDS in Arizona, a 23 percent increase in those infected compared to five years ago, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
With the disease making headlines following Charlie Sheen’s announcement that he is HIV positive, HIV/AIDS advocates hope public attention shifts back to the AIDS epidemic.
Across the country, more than 1.2 million people have the HIV infection, including about 156,300 who are unaware they are infected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
While emerging cases have been on the decline for decades and more people are living with the disease because of the efficiency of antiviral treatments, experts stress that HIV/AIDS remains incurable.
It is true that the drugs are prolonging the the life expectancy of those infected, but AIDS still is a deadly disease that has killed more than 650,000 people across the United States.
In 2013 alone, 183 people died from AIDS in Arizona, the ADHS states.
In the past decade, HIV/AIDS has become the forgotten disease, prevention advocates say. Public interest and resources have turned to other diseases as the medical world has struggled to maintain HIV/AIDS awareness.
"The story isn’t as big for the media because AIDS-related death rates are exponentially smaller," says Cindy Quenneville, chief executive officer of Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS in Phoenix. "However, [there are] approximately 50,000 new HIV infections each year [in the United States]."
HIV/AIDS prevention advocates are optimistic that Sheen's case will help revive public interest in the disease. Last week, Sheen appeared on NBC's Today Show to announce that he had been HIV positive for four years.
He told host Matt Lauer he hopes that by speaking about his diagnosis others who suffer from HIV/AIDS will face the reality of their situations.
“I have a responsibility now to . . . help a lot of other people, and hopefully with what we’re doing today, others may come forward and say, 'Thanks, Charlie. Thanks for kicking the door open,'" Sheen said.
Quenneville says the announcement has started a new dialogue about HIV/AIDS, including how to prevent the spread of the virus.
"With Charlie Sheen coming out, now people are talking again. How long, I’m not sure. But they are asking these same questions," she says. "Charlie Sheen is another reminder that this can happen to anyone."
Although Kloeckl admits that Sheen — who has become better known for crazed rants about "winning" and "tiger blood" — may not be the best representative for the disease, he praises the actor for making his diagnosis public.
“The question is, does he use his celebrity to bring attention [to] HIV and AIDS?" Kloecki says. "Or does he go on with his Charlie Sheen life?”
In interviews, Sheen said he had kept his diagnosis private and spent millions paying off people who threatened to reveal it.
Kloeckl remembers all too well the internalized shame attached to the disease and the desire to keep the diagnosis secret. In 2005, when Kloeckl, who is gay, found out he was HIV positive, he was between insurance policies and had gone a few years without testing.
“I didn’t feel that I was out engaging in risky behavior. I didn’t think I had any reason to think I was at risk,” he says. “When I look back now, I realize how foolish I was.”
Though at first he blamed himself, he quickly realized he was a good person facing a bad situation. Still, he found treatments were not as difficult as the task of telling his loved ones.
“There is a stigma we live with being HIV positive. People judge you when they hear you have HIV or AIDS,” he says.
Kloeckl officially came out publicly as HIV positive at a fundraising event on World AIDS Day. By then he had been living with the disease for several years.
He has since dedicated his life and career to battling the disease as the executive director of the Phoenix-based Aunt Rita’s Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises money for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention.
“When people contract the disease, they do one of two things. They let it own them. Or they say they are going to own the disease,” he says.
Just last year, Kloeckl finally admitted his HIV had advanced to AIDS. He says he no longer is ashamed.
“I can’t tell you how many people are HIV positive and can’t say the words. I have found the courage to tell people that I have HIV and AIDS, and I can actually talk about it. Hopefully, I can be a voice for people who aren’t ready to speak out yet.”
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