Sheen went off his retroviral medication and quickly went back on. (Photo: Getty Images)
Actor Charlie Sheen had stopped taking his HIV medication, but he reportedly went back on days later.
“I’ve been off my meds for about a week now,” he said on the episode of The Dr. Oz Show that aired Tuesday. “Am I risking my life? Sure. So what? I was born dead. That part of it doesn’t faze me at all.”
Sheen, 50, said he’s currently seeking treatment from a physician named Dr. Sam Chachoua, who Oz says is not licensed to practice medicine in the U.S. (According to DrSamChachoua.com, Chachoua once found a cure for HIV and cancer but “had his work stolen and destroyed” 20 years ago.)
Sheen announced in November that he is HIV-positive after a tabloid report surfaced that said the actor had been hiding his diagnosis for four years.
He told Oz in Tuesday’s interview that he was “a little off my game” because he received medical results that he was disappointed about right before he walked onstage. “I know this is an experiment, that I took a stroll down a different path,” he said. “But, yeah, I’d been nondetectable and nondetectable and checking the blood every week, and then found out that the numbers were back up.”
Sheen’s manager, Mark Burg, told People that he went back on his medication right after the taping of The Dr. Oz Show. “Charlie is back on his meds,” Burg said. “He tried a cure from a doctor in Mexico, but the minute his numbers went up, he started taking his medicine.”
Sheen’s body’s reaction to going off medication is not surprising, William Short, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and an HIV specialist credentialed by the American Academy of HIV Medicine, tells Yahoo Health.
“That’s where we are in terms of why we can’t find the cure,” he says. Once an HIV patient goes off retroviral medication (which Short calls “a bad idea”) the virus can proliferate again.
“Even though the virus is undetectable in someone’s blood when they’re on antiretroviral medication, this virus is still working in certain cells,” board-certified infectious disease specialist Amesh A. Adalja, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, tells Yahoo Health. “There are these reservoirs of HIV.”
Researchers have even studied people who go on and off HIV medication next to those who stay on it consistently, Jeffrey Lennox, MD, a professor of infectious diseases at the Emory University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Health. “People who stopped their treatment were almost twice as likely to die as people who continued their treatment,” he says. “It wasn’t due to AIDS, but it led to things like stroke and heart attacks.” When the virus replicates, it causes bodily inflammation, he explains, which can lead to these complications and more.
Adalja says that it’s difficult for patients to be 100 percent compliant with their medication (since everyone forgets to take a pill here and there), but physicians aim to have them take their medication 90 percent of the time. When someone takes their medication less often than that, or goes off it completely, the virus can multiply, causing damage to the immune system, kidney, liver, and heart, turning into full-blown AIDS, and eventually killing the patient.
Patients may need to go off a medication temporarily for a variety of reasons, Adalja says, but it’s typically done under the careful care of a physician. Simply going off medication cold turkey can increase the chance that the virus will become resistant to the drug, making effective treatment difficult for the patient in the future.
But going off antiretroviral medication can have repercussions for more than just the patient. It also increases the chances that a person with HIV will infect someone else, especially when they’re as sexually active as Charlie Sheen, says Short. Antiretroviral medication “decreases the number of new infections,” he says.
Unfortunately, experts say, Sheen’s situation isn’t uncommon. “I see this every day,” says Short. He sees patients who choose to go off their medication for a variety of reasons — they have a substance abuse problem or mental health issues, they’re in denial, they’re afraid of the stigma, or they think it’s a government conspiracy. The result: death. “I just lost two patients, and neither was on medication,” Short says.
Adalja says it’s a challenge for doctors. “There are always going to be patients that, for whatever reason, don’t want to be on their medications,” he says. “Doctors have to overcome this because we know that they are lifesaving.”
But Lennox says HIV patients can actually learn a lot from Sheen: “In a way, I think Charlie Sheen has done a great service because he’s demonstrated that going off your medication is not a great idea.”