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What Charlie Sheen Can Teach Us About Quack Doctors

Since Charlie Sheen announced that he was HIV-positive in November 2015, the actor has made some characteristically interesting choices when it comes to managing his treatment.

On an episode of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” a man named Dr. Samir Chachoua appeared to discuss Sheen’s treatment. He said they met when Sheen was seeking the doctor — who does not have a license to practice medicine in the United States — in Mexico. 

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Chachoua says he advised Sheen to stop taking traditional antiretroviral treatments (ART), and replace them with Chachoua’s own cocktail of treatments. This cocktail includes goat’s milk from an unspecified part of Mexico, where many goats are infected with caprine arthritis encephalitis virus, or CAEV.

“These goats have a virus called CAEV,” he told Maher, “And this virus destroys HIV and protects people who drink it for life.” 

Chachoua said Sheen was experiencing incontinence, encephalitis, and liver failure as a result of his ART drugs.

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“All of these side effects disappeared the minute he started my therapy,” he added, claiming that his therapies have “cured countries.”

As for Sheen, Chachoua has now determined him to be “HIV-negative.” And to prove his treatment’s effectiveness, he claims to have injected himself with Sheen’s blood. 

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Needless to say, all of this has drawn criticism. 

“I have had several questions from users about the authenticity of Sheen’s Mexico doctor,” says Josh Robbins, HIV activist and founder of I’m Still Josh. “I certainly believe that a network like HBO has some responsibility to share factual health information since they aired misinformation.” 

Since the interview, Sheen has distanced himself from Chachoua, going so far as to liken him to Pinocchio on Twitter. On February 9, he appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” to set the record straight, affirming that he had only met Chachoua once. 

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"The experience Charlie had with Dr. Sam Chachoua had a disastrous effect on his health, despite anything the doctor has said publicly,” said Dr. Mehmet Oz in a statement.

Big Claims, Zero Data

On his website, Chachoua has provided a lengthy description of Sheen’s treatment and medical history. 

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Chachoua claims to have eradicated not only HIV, but also mosquito-borne illness chikungunya, from the Comoros Islands, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, in 2006. 

This is despite the fact that there is currently no treatment, or vaccine, for chikungunya. Not to mention that 2.1 percent of the country’s adult population is still living with HIV, at least according to UNICEF. That’s well above the global average of 0.8 percent. 

Some research has shown that CAEV and HIV can cross-react with one another because they are from the same family of viruses. But that is where the links end. CAEV cannot be transmitted to humans, whether or not they are drinking milk from an infected goat.

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In summary, Chachoua’s claims are “absolute crap,” says Stuart Spitalnic, M.D., clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at Brown University. “Arbitrary claims put forth without evidence are unrefutable — not irrefutable — and need to be ignored, not glorified as ‘possible’ until disproved.”

The Dangers of Stopping ART

Chachoua says he advised Sheen to stop his antiretroviral treatment (ART) because of the side effects, including incontinence, encephalitis, and liver failure. 

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According to the National Institutes of Health, long-term stoppage of ART is not recommended unless in a clinical trial setting. Stopping ART increases a patient’s chances of disease progression, transmission, development of drug resistance, and more. In fact, the Strategies for Management of Antiretroviral Therapy (SMART) trial found that doing so doubles a person’s risk of dying or getting sick. 

“To the extent that his meds are effective, going off them is a mistake,” Spitalnic said of Sheen. The actor has since resumed taking his ART drugs and has “returned to good health,” according to Oz.

Many people wish to discontinue ART after their viral load in their blood goes below detectable levels, but even then the virus can linger in other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes and brain.

Clinical guidelines urge HIV patients to remain faithful to their regimen, unless otherwise directed by their qualified physician. 

Some Important Considerations

Thanks to advances in medicine, HIV is not a death sentence. While there is no cure, it is possible to live a long and healthy life when you are HIV-positive. 

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Sadly, there are those who take advantage of people’s desire to be well. When doctors claim to have a “cure” for something, it should be founded on extensive research based on large population sizes. Single-case results touted in the media mean little without peer review and repeated studies.

Patients with HIV, or any chronic illness, should seek a qualified infectious disease (ID) specialist. The HIV Medicine Association recommends using three criteria to determine whether an HIV provider is qualified to treat you:

If you have been diagnosed as HIV-positive and don’t know what your next steps are, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can help you locate a qualified HIV provider near you. 

While HIV/AIDS research continues to be an evolving filed, ART remains the gold standard in helping people live longer, healthier lives. 

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