Charlie Sheen Had A Huge Impact On HIV Prevention

The day Sheen disclosed his status, Internet searches about HIV dramatically rose. Denis Makarenko/Shutterstock

It’s an unfortunate fact that diseases sometimes don’t get the recognition they deserve until celebrities are afflicted with them. Lance Armstrong, for example, made a huge impact on testicular cancer awareness and fundraising following his diagnosis, which continues today two decades on.

And now it seems some good is being made out of a celebrity’s sad situation once again, as Charlie Sheen’s public disclosure of his HIV-positive status appears to have had a huge effect on the public. Not only did he apparently create fresh and deserved attention for the virus, in doing so this increased interest may have ultimately helped prevention strategies, at least in the U.S.

“Celebrity disclosures are not new to HIV, with Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson serving as noteworthy examples. Yet, Sheen’s disclosure could be different,” study author Eric Leas from UC San Diego said in a statement. “The Web 2.0 era may heighten the impact of Sheen.”

Published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers from San Diego State University wanted to see whether Sheen’s announcement on November 17, 2015 prompted engagement with HIV and related topics, thus perhaps creating a boost for public health. Using a combination of information from the Bloomberg Terminal and Google Trends, the team monitored Internet searches and media reports around the time of his disclosure, looking for terms like “HIV,” “condoms” and “HIV testing.”

Despite there having been an overall downward trend in media attention of HIV over the years, on the day that Sheen went public there was a dramatic 265 percent increase in news reports mentioning the virus. On Google News alone, there were 6,500 pieces that referenced HIV that day, placing it among the top days in terms of HIV media coverage over the past seven years.

Taking into account previous Internet patterns, they found that Sheen’s disclosure coincided with 2.75 million additional searches that included the term “HIV,” or almost a 420 percent increase on what would be expected. Not only that, but there was a huge boost in the number of condom searches, including people looking for places to buy them, alongside searches for HIV testing facilities and symptoms, which rose by a staggering 214 and 540 percent, respectively.

Since as many as 1 in 8 infected people in the U.S., and 1 in 6 in the U.K., don’t know that they have HIV, this renewed attention could have had an impact on HIV prevention if it ultimately boosted safe sex practices and testing, but unfortunately this study can’t enlighten us on that. And as the analysis was only conducted for a three-week period, we don’t know if the apparent effects are lasting or have already petered out.

But it’s clear as crystal that celebrity affiliation does indeed generate renewed interest in health issues. So what public health workers need to do is jump on this and use it to drive campaigns forward, rather than allowing the desperately needed added attention to fizzle out to a point where people don’t think it’s an issue they need to worry about anymore. 

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