Come clean before sex

Human Rights Day is observed every year on Dec 10 since 1966. To celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, the United Nations is highlighting that civil, political, cultural, economic, and social rights that are the birth right of all human beings.

The year-long campaign carries the slogan “our rights, our freedoms, always” which aims to promote namely freedom of speech, worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.  

The complexity of rights of a human being in relation to past sexual history has been somewhat reflected in the life of Charlie Sheen over his recent HIV status disclosure. The son of actor Martin Sheen has been in the public eye for almost five decades, from having small roles in his father’s film as a child, to Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning movie Platoon 

This year, Sheen, who also starred in the series, Anger Management, shocked America after telling NBC’s Today show on Nov 17 that he was diagnosed as HIV positive about four years ago and few people who knew his condition were demanding money from him to keep the secret. Under such pressure and scrutiny, the actor has to give up his very basic rights of privacy.  

The public disclosure of Sheen’s HIV status has a huge effect to the public. Clearly, HIV is seen as a stigma with many patients suffering in silence due to shame. However, such revelations have the impact of breaking taboos and reducing barriers, allowing patients to come forward for treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. Ultimately, this will help save lives.  

Less than a month after the confession, Sheen’s former fiancée filed a lawsuit accusing him of assault, battery, false imprisonment and failure to disclose that he was HIV positive before sex. According to some reports, Sheen took extreme measures to keep his HIV status secret, including having his sexual partners to sign a confidentiality agreement 

The argument of the right to privacy and the right to self-protection is often complex when it comes to sexual health. This week, we explore a reader’s conundrum.  

Dear Dr G,  

My name is Lucy. I am 28 years old.  

I married my 42-year-old husband last year. He was previously divorced for three years.  

We have a very loving and intimate relationship even before we were married.  

I recently found out that my husband suffered syphilis after undergoing a medical check up for work.  

His blood tests showed he is TPHA positive but VDRL negative.

I feel very hurt as my husband did not disclose to me his history of having a sexually transmitted disease. I am also very worried as I am now three months pregnant. 

I am very worried about how the infection can affect my baby and I.

Can you please tell me what exactly is syphilis? How should I get tested and treated for the condition? And how should I confront my husband for not telling me his past? 



Syphilis is a bacterial infection caused by Treponema Pallidum and primarily spread by sexual contact.  

The condition is contagious during primary and secondary stages, and sometimes in early latent period. For many years, the prevalence of syphilis has been declining. However, the infection is on the rise in certain countries, particularly in men.  

This sexually transmitted infection is typically spread from skin or mucosa, and will result in painless sores in the genital, rectum and mouth.  

The genital sores associated with syphilis can also increase the risk of transmission of HIV.  

After the infection, the syphilis bacteria may remain dormant in the body for decades before recurrence. Early syphilis is curable by penicillin injections.  

Without the treatment, syphilis can result in severe damage to other organs outside the genitals, such as the heart and brain. This may result in stroke, meningitis, deafness and even dementia.  

Syphilis may also pass from an infected mother to an unborn baby. Congenital syphilis can increase the risk of miscarriage and stillbirths.  

Blood tests are usually carried out to determine one’s infection status. This can confirm the presence of antibodies that are produced to fight the bacteria.  

Although Lucy’s husband has the presence of TPHA in his blood test, his VDRL is negative and likely to represent his past infection rather than current active syphilis.  

The antibodies to the bacteria often times remain in the body for years, reminding the sufferers of their secret past, despite being infection-free.  

Nelson Mandela once said: “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”  

When it comes to sex, there are often two sides of the story - the right to privacy and the other, self-protection.  

Sometimes non-disclosure of the past may not be done with ill intent but out of love. Therefore, open communication is the only answer for couples. 

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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Syphilis , sex , HIV , opinion

Dr George Lee

Dr George Lee

Dr George Lee is a consultant Urologist and Clinical Associate Professor whose professional interest is in men’s health. This column is a forum to help men debunk the myths and taboos on men’s issues that may be too “hard” to mention. You can send him questions at


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