Charlie Sheen piqued online curiosity about HIV

Charlie Sheen Is HIV Positive
Charlie Sheen Is HIV Positive

(Reuters Health) - Actor Charlie Sheen's disclosure that he is infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) could be having a public health benefit, researchers say.

News reports about HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, had been on the decline between 2004 and 2015, but news stories - and HIV-related Google searches - spiked on November 17, 2015, when Sheen publicly disclosed his HIV-positive status, according to a report in JAMA Internal Medicine.

"Charlie Sheen's HIV-positive disclosure is the most significant single domestic HIV-related event in more than a decade," said John W. Ayers of San Diego State University, coauthor of the research letter. "Literally millions of people sought out information on condoms, HIV testing and HIV symptoms on the days around Sheen's disclosure."

See Charlie Sheen through the years:

But public health advocates are not harnessing Sheen's disclosure to promote HIV prevention, and may not realize that they could be, he told Reuters Health by email.

"If more advocates were aware of the Charlie Sheen Effect, more might be trying to reinforce it with additional messages," he said.

The researchers used data from Bloomberg on news reports and Google Trends to analyze English-language news containing the term HIV and U.S. internet searches for "HIV," "condom," "HIV symptoms" and "HIV testing" between January 1, 2004 and November 24, 2015.

In 2004, there were 67 stories about HIV per 1,000 news reports, according to the Bloomberg data. That fell to 12 per 1,000 in 2015. On the day of Sheen's announcement in November, those stories increased by more than 200 percent, with more than 6,500 HIV-related stories on Google News.

November 17th also saw the highest number of HIV-related Google Searches in U.S. history, more than 400 percent higher than expected on that day. Condom related searches were 72 percent higher than expected on November 18th and remained elevated for two days.

Searches pertaining to symptoms and testing were also 500 and 200 percent higher than usual, respectively, and remained high three days later, the researchers reported.

"The public is fascinated by the sex lives of movie stars," said Dr. Mitchell Katz, director of the Los Angeles County Health Agency, who wrote an editor's note alongside the new results. "What is surprising is that it would cause them to seek more information about HIV prevention and testing."

"Public health for more than three decades has delivered a consistent message about HIV: Get tested, know the signs, and use condoms," Ayers said. "That message was so well engrained that when the public was presented with Sheen's HIV-positive disclosure they began seeking out public health salient information on HIV testing, the signs of HIV, and condoms."

Celebrity announcements or actions have been tied to public health effects before, as when news anchor Katie Couric was screened for colon cancer on-air in 2000, but none have been tied to an effect the size of the one tied to Sheen's announcement, he said.

"It will be sometime before the data are available to assess how HIV screening or condom sales increased," he said.

But just looking for more information is an important public health outcome itself, Ayers said.

"Our study suggests that we need to be thinking about how to harness the Charlie Sheen effect to make sure that all those motivated to think about their HIV risks around Sheen's disclosure are encouraged to continue to do so," he said.

Charlie Sheen also discontinued taking medically approved HIV medication, and a former sex partner told Howard Stern that Sheen did not appropriately reveal his HIV-positive status during their relationship, Ayers noted.

"It's harder to frame public health messages around a figure whose behavior may at times conflict with public health science," he said.

The media has a responsibility to educate and should pair every salacious story with a tip, article or referral that helps readers to protect themselves, Katz told Reuters Health by email. One such resource is aids.gov.

"We don't know the impact of Sheen's behaviors subsequent of his disclosure, and they should be studied," Ayers said.

"Of the more than 1.2 million people in the United States living with HIV, nearly one in eight are unaware of their HIV-positive status," he said. "We all want to see that number fall. I'm sure Sheen would too, and through his disclosure, it might."

Also learn about other notable celebrities diagnosed with HIV:

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