Last November, Charlie Sheen disclosed that he is HIV-positive. At the time, it seemed like the most responsible thing the actor had done in years. He brought his doctor on the air, and together they explained in clear language the complexities of the medical condition and how antivirals could make the virus "undetectable."
This had a surprising upside. Researchers are now calling Sheen’s actions the "most significant domestic HIV prevention event in the last decade."
For a newly published study in JAMA Internal Medicine, academics sifted through Google search information in the week after Sheen's announcement. They also looked at media archives on HIV and HIV prevention since 2004.
Sheen’s disclosure, they found, "corresponded with the greatest number of HIV-related Google searches ever recorded in the United States."
People weren’t just searching online for celebrity gossip about Charlie Sheen. They wanted to know about the virus and how to protect themselves and how to get tested. In the hours after the actor’s announcement, searches related to HIV symptoms were 540 percent higher than usual, searches related to HIV testing were 214 percent higher, and searches related to condoms were 72 percent higher.
Unsurprisingly, news stories related to HIV also spiked, according to an analysis of media trends using the Bloomberg Terminal. Before Sheen's announcement, only about 12 stories per 1,000 in 2015 were about HIV. Sheen's announcement corresponded with a 265 percent boost — with 6,500 stories on Google News alone.
So Sheen's announcement generated more attention around HIV in the past seven years than any AIDS conference, research finding, or United Nations mandate.
The "Sheen effect" isn't new at all
For better and worse, the impact that celebrities have on our health has been well-documented.
Researchers found that Angelina Jolie's 2013 op-ed in the New York Times about her decision to undergo a double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer drove women to seek genetic counseling about their risk of getting the disease. In 2000, Katie Couric's awareness campaign about colorectal screening led to an increase in colonoscopy use, dubbed "the Katie Couric effect." Long before Sheen, Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson disclosed their HIV statuses and completely changed the public perception of the disease.
Today, we have the "Sheen effect." The study's lead author, San Diego State University's John W. Ayers, argues it's time for the public health community wake up to the awareness opportunities celebrity announcements provide.
"We know we have this big impact on people seeking out HIV prevention resources," Ayers says. "So imagine if every pubic health service began using Sheen’s disclosure to promote HIV prevention, and every news article included a link to find out how to be tested."
The public health community should capitalize on these media events
Unfortunately, despite all the evidence this isn't yet happening. Ayers pointed out that HIV.gov only issued a press release about Sheen, but no creative public health information campaign. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was silent.
Maybe these esteemed health agencies are afraid to associate with imperfect messengers like Sheen. He's not exactly a model citizen, and he's been quite irresponsible in follow-up media appearances, announcing on The Dr. Oz Show that he's been skipping his HIV medication.
But Ayers argues it's time for the public health community to be more pragmatic. "We know [Sheen] had this big impact on people seeking out HIV prevention resources," he said.
People care about celebrities. Celebrity health announcements have been shown to change people's health behaviors and information seeking patterns. Public health officials should take note.