In the latest development of the media circus of Charlie Sheen’s HIV diagnosis, the doctor, Dr. Samir Chachoua, who treated Sheen’s HIV claims to have found the cure the disorder in arthritic goat milk.
Yes, you read that correctly, goat’s milk, as if the 35-year fight to find a cure and vaccine suddenly was in vain because the doctors are too faithful to the scientific method.
Withstanding the critiques of the scientific method and the state of modern medical science, the medical establishment is sure that HIV is difficult to eradicate permanently, with a single HIV patient being cured of the disorder, Timothy Brown, aka The Berlin Patient.
The current treatment regimen for HIV-positive patients is a steady stream of what are called highly active antiretrovirals treatment (HAART). If the patient is consistent in taking their medication regularly, i.e. every day, the virus retreats to the lymph nodes and fails to reproduce, thus sparing the immune system. This isn’t to say that the person is “cured,” but rather, just stemming the tide.
But goat’s milk? Dr. Chachoua claims that his method of Induced Remission Treatment, which apparently works on cancer too, works because of a special agent in the milk that targets the HIV virus. According to database searches, Dr. Chachoua has never published the results of the supposed miracle cure, claiming that researchers at UCLA School of Medicine and its associated hospital Cedars-Sinai Medical Center stole and buried his work.
So why is Dr. Chachoua so dangerous? Well, he is given plenty of airtime to hawk his brand of charlatanism on supposedly credible TV programs. While Dr. Oz has been widely criticized for the medical advice given on his show, the authority that he has as a licensed doctor and professor is enough for the layperson to set aside the inconvenient facts that many of the treatments and information are either bogus or, at the very least, ineffective for most people. While Dr. Oz did suggest that Sheen go back on his medication, the doubt that Sheen allowed fester allows for HIV denialism of evidence-based practices and false hope for those that are HIV-positive that they will be cured, even when medical science has rebutted that with current medical knowledge, HIV isn’t something that can be cured yet.
Sheen is critical of Dr. Chachoua in the Dr. Oz interview and on Twitter, and so is Dr. Oz, but the mere fact that the goat’s milk cure is given airtime can create major issues for people living with HIV, either through their own doing, their loved ones, or strangers.
The TV and the Internet, and other forms of media are very powerful shapers of society. Fox News can be thought of as the par excellence of the shaper of right-wing political thought in for both the politicians and the public, which plenty of ink, on both sides the political spectrum, has been spilled confirming the network’s power because it taps into the psyche of the individual and thus bringing them to action for the network’s allies.
The same thing happens when Dr. Chachoua taps into the hopes of HIV and cancer patients that the cure that all these scientists and doctors have been searching for without success has been found in an alternative method. The argument that follows becomes that the scientist-doctor has been focused on a narrow line of thinking and, therefore, do not see the answers that lie in front of them. Dr. Chachoua and other quacks amplify the confusion and ignorance of how medical science works, thus showing how simple and understandable their “miracle” cure works. They exploit a medical Occam’s Razor that medical science can never produce without years of training.
Technically, while the medical establishment has criticized Dr. Chachoua as failing to understand basic cancer and HIV biology, there is simply no research done on the doctor’s supposed cures. Dr. Chachoua argues that the medical establishment is suppressing his work and publications, but alas cannot prove that to be the case. While there is a lack of publishable proof on both sides of the argument, Charlie Sheen’s medical experiment with Dr. Chachaoua should be considered a case study.
In addition, because Dr. Chachoua treated a celebrity for HIV, he gains a cultural capital that becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. Apparently he is good enough he can attract celebrities to come to his clinic in Mexico and who have the resources to pay for this “cure.” Not only can he do that, but also he gains power from the fact that he was a doctor for a celebrity.
I am fairly stunned that more people outside of the activist groups haven’t taken this up with their social media accounts and fought back. Even the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, two organizations dating back to the beginnings of the epidemic have nothing on their site attempting to combat Dr. Chachoua’s remarks on national TV. Some news sources picked the story up, but by leaving it uncontested, the SFAF and the GMHC shove off their responsibilities as advocates of those living with HIV.
This is not to say that there are no activists out there trying to inform the public, but they are working at the individual level rather than through the standard HIV non-profit organization. Some notable names are Josh Robbins, Kevin Maloney, and Maria Maija, all of which write for various HIV websites like Poz.com, Rise Up to HIV, and TheBody.com.
But there is another thing that bothers me as well than Dr. Chachoua appearing on TV, namely the fact that Charlie Sheen has become the poster boy for HIV in Hollywood. The narrative of Sheen’s infection from the start has been of a reckless party boy, now infected with an all-consuming illness that only “deviants” contract, which is the leftover legacy of HIV-based homophobia. It was Sheen that gave Dr. Chachoua credibility, because he was ignorant enough to know that there is no miracle cure to HIV. This can be seen as a failure of the public health machine to impart this message to all the high-risk groups, which Sheen could have been apart of if he using IV methods of drug abuse.
In the Dr. Oz interview, Sheen has sort of effectively othered HIV patients as unsavory people as they experience embarrassing medication side effects such as the “poopy pants” remark that Sheen unfortunately put out there. This reinforces the “dirtiness” of HIV, but also harkens back to the 1980s and early 1990s, when the side effects of the medication were even worse. Yes, one can contest the unsavoriness of side effects transferring to people living with HIV, however, the way in which Sheen has communicated it thrusts some of unpleasant realities back into the public eye, thus further stigmatizing patients.
By going to Dr. Chachoua and believing in the insane notion that he can cure a disease, in which only one person has been cured of through medical science, through goat milk and a special “procedure,” Sheen creates a fictional universe where HIV is curable today and through alternative methods.
There are many promising leads in trying to find a cure and vaccine for HIV, but Dr. Chachoua’s Induced Remission Treatment is yet another “cure” that does nothing but separate a sucker from his money. When this goes against established medical knowledge on talk shows, such as Real Time with Bill Maher, it breeds ignorance about today’s realities of HIV infection.
Bill Maher hasn’t been a great spokesperson for the medical establishment. While the medical community, pharmaceuticals, and the insurance companies do not have perfect records by any stretch of the imagination, by promoting anti-vaccination and HIV denialism, which Maher has voiced support for in the past, Maher has effectively established the medical science is bunk and that people should not trust the medical community. While people should think critically and learn to understand how medical science actually works when making decisions about their health, Maher sidesteps an inconvenient truth of critical thinking and allows for pseudoscience to flourish.
In perusing public Facebook posts, many people were accusing the medical establishment from preventing the cure of HIV to go public because it was on Maher’s show and because a person with a medical degree said so. This plays nicely into the critique of the pharmaceutical industry that cures are not what ultimately grow profit, which has been validated by researchers. As Salon journalist, Mary Elizabeth Williams has put eloquently, Maher posits his show as a zone of facts, when in fact that he is promoting blatant lies and this creates a field of information distortion.
Activist Josh Robbins believes that HBO should run factual information with their viewers in response to Dr. Chachoua’s appearance. It is actually fairly shocking HBO would allow the doctor’s ideas on their network given the good work that they have achieved in their LGBT programming and audience, but this is a complete step backward and HBO is now in the hot seat and they need to counter Maher’s undoing of medicine.
While healthy debate is an important part critical thinking, Maher has allowed fiction to overtake the realities of HIV science, science that has been in development for roughly 35 years. If Dr. Chachoua had indeed found the cure to HIV why haven’t more people come forward and why is he championing only Sheen, who ultimately went back on his medication?
While I will give Dr. Oz a pass on Sheen, given that Dr. Oz recommended Sheen to go back to his ART medication, I refuse to give Maher a pass on promoting junk science. To promote quackery will ultimately lead to the death of a patient that will go to Dr. Chachoua expecting a miracle cure, not take their medication and will die because their comprised immune system cannot handle the infections that will arise. Both Dr. Chachoua and Maher will eventually have blood on their hands.
It is incredible that in 2016 we are still fighting against “miracle” cures. While the fight for an HIV cure is ongoing and medical scientists are always looking for better treatment with fewer side effects, miracle cures like the one that Dr. Chachoua, Maher, and to a lesser extent, Dr. Oz and Sheen are promoting do more harm than good and fragrantly reprehensible.
 Dr. Chachoua also claims to have sued Cedars-Sinai and won, thus requiring Cedars-Sinai to pay $10 million, however, upon further investigation, Cedars never paid anything to Dr. Chachoua.