Charlie Sheen's revelation this week that he is HIV-positive will help raise the awareness of HIV in Billings and  bring much-needed training to the public on what being HIV-positive really means, said Autumn Frey, executive director of the Billings-based Yellowstone AIDS Project.

"There is still a stigma not only with HIV and AIDS, but also if you have HIV or AIDS, Frey told Townsquare Media Billings. "I know it sounds the same, but people do not understand the differences between HIV and AIDS."

Sheen on Tuesday disclosed on Today that he’s HIV-positive, and that he’s known for some time.

His public acknowledgement comes at a time when the number of HIV cases in Montana is on the rise.

Seven out of 10 Montanans do not know their HIV status and nationally, one in five with HIV do not know they are infected, according to Rhianna D. Hurt, community outreach coordinator for YellowStone AIDS Project.

“HIV infections are on the rise this year in Montana and if you don’t know your status, or it’s been a while since your last test, now is the time to get tested,” Frey said.

HIV statistics:

  • New cases in 2014 = 24
  • New cases in 2015, Jan. 1 – Aug. 31 = 39
  • Number of HIV+ people living in Montana = 567 as of July

It is unlikely that Sheen's acknowledgement will make it easier for others to follow his lead, Frey said.

Autumn Frey, photo courtesy of Yellowstone AIDS Project

"The hopeful answer would be yes, but reality is no," Frey said. "The stigma associated with this is extreme. Some people are shunned by family, peers, their community, while others may face poor treatment in health care settings, and some may experience psychological damage. The perception of how a person was infected is because they were doing something wrong. This may mean IV drug use, multiple sexual partners, or being gay."

Frey also said there are things the public should know before discussing Sheen's case and directed readers here.

Yellowstone AIDS Project is now offering expanded hours for HIV and Hepatitis C testing. Beginning Wednesday, Sept. 30, the YAP office will be open every Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. for testing.

Testing requires a quick finger stick or an oral swab; results are available in 20 minutes.

Appointments are preferred but walk-ins are welcome. For more information on HIV, visit Yellowstone AIDS Project.

For more information on testing or to make an appointment, call (406) 245-2029.