Public Interest in HIV Surges in the Wake of Charlie Sheen

Charlie Sheen's announcement that he is HIV-positive may lead to a new era of HIV preventative efforts.

In the wake of Charlie Sheen’s announcement that he is HIV positive, researchers are seeing record highs of public engagement for HIV prevention.

"Charlie Sheen's disclosure was a potential earth shaking event for HIV prevention in the United States," said researcher John W. Ayers.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine used the Bloomberg Terminal and Good Trends for public archives on news media trends to describe the engagement since 2004.

Researchers studied news reports that mentioned HIV, as well as Google searches conducted in the United States that came hours after Sheen had made his announcement.

The searches were broken into four categories:

  • HIV
  • Condoms
  • HIV symptomology, which included “symptom”; “symptoms of HIV”; “signs of HIV”; and “HIV”
  • HIV testing that included “tests”; “tests”; and “testing and HIV”

"This big data strategy allowed us to provide a formative assessment of the potential impacts of Charlie Sheen's HIV-positive disclosure at no cost," said study data architect Benjamin Althouse. "We can directly assess the diffusion of media in the population and how the population is seeking out information based on the timing and content of their Google searches."

The results of the study showed on Bloomberg Terminal there was a 265% increase in news reports that mentioned HIV and 97% that mentioned Sheen, despite the historic decline. There were also 6500 stories that were reported on Google News. This information placed him among the top 1% of historic HIV-related media events.

There was also 2.75 million more, or 417%, of HIV-related Google searches than had been expected based on prior trends. Furthermore, it was reported that there were 1.25 million more searches for condoms (75%), HIV testing (214%), and HIV symptoms (540%).

"Sheen's disclosure could be an important event to immediately raise public consciousness around HIV, and make public health messages about HIV that much more salient," said study coauthor Seth Noar.

Two weeks prior to Sheen’s announcement, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tom Friedan spoke about the state of HIV control and how more than 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV and nearly 1 in 8 are unaware that they even have it.

"Celebrity disclosures are not new to HIV, with Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson serving as noteworthy examples,” added study coauthor Eric Leas. “Yet, Sheen's disclosure could be different. The Web 2.0 era may heighten the impact of Sheen. With Sheen, unlike with Magic Johnson for instance, we have smartphones in our pockets that we can easily use to learn about HIV within seconds with a single search or click. At the same time, social media can expand the effect of Sheen's disclosure beyond the initial television broadcast as networks form around celebrities."

Although Sheen’s announcement has made an impact in the HIV community, there has not been any major HIV educational campaigns using his disclosure.

"Sheen is a controversial figure and it's incredibly hard to frame public health messages around a figure whose behavior -- not unlike any non-celebrity or myself -- may at times conflict with public health science," said Ayers.

However, Sheen has already fueled tremendous public health benefits.

“More must be done to make the Charlie Sheen effect larger and lasting," Ayers said.