The ‘Charlie Sheen effect’ really did help HIV awareness


Story highlights

Charlie Sheen's disclosure produced most Google searches on HIV ever recorded in U.S.

Media coverage on day of disclosure ranked in top 1% compared with last seven years

"Celebrity effect" isn't always positive and should be managed closely, health experts say

CNN —  

It’s called the “celebrity effect” – the ability of a well-known personality to raise awareness of an illness or public health concern.

When Katie Couric had a live TV colonoscopy in 2000, screenings and awareness of colon cancer increased. Angelina Jolie’s 2013 decision to remove both breasts more than doubled genetic testing referrals among women at high risk for breast cancer.

Now there’s the “Charlie Sheen effect.” When Sheen announced in November he had been hiding his HIV-positive status for years, media coverage and public interest on the star and the topic of HIV exploded. A study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine shows just how much.

Researchers from San Diego State University’s School of Public Health ran an analysis of media and Internet searches after Sheen’s November 17 announcement. They found that media coverage of HIV on the day of Sheen’s disclosure ranked in the top 1% compared with the last seven years. It followed years of declining media coverage of HIV – from 67 stories per 1,000 in 2004 to 12 stories per 1,000 in 2015.

The actor’s announcement was also connected to the most Google searches on HIV ever recorded in the United States, the study said. Using an experimental algorithm to mine data from the day Sheen spoke out to December 8, researchers found 2.75 million more searches than expected contained the word HIV. Perhaps more impressive, researchers said, 1.25 million of those searches “were directly relevant to public health outcomes because they included search terms for condoms, HIV symptoms, or HIV testing.”

“That’s great news,” said Morrigan Phillips, program director for Victory Programs’ Boston Living Center, one of 17 health and housing programs that serve the HIV, addiction and homeless population in the Boston area. “People are curious. Hopefully they have found their way to useful and accurate sources of information such as the Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention).”

“The day of Sheen’s disclosure was the the biggest abrupt HIV event in our existence,” said JD Davids, managing editor of, an HIV/AIDS awareness site founded 25 years ago. “It was our largest traffic day ever, by far. Our usual top traffic day is World AIDS Day, and the day of Sheen’s disclosure and the two that followed drastically exceeded that level of activity.”

“The sheer volume of searches shows how much interest there is, but it’s also an alarm bell,” said Carl Sciortino, executive director of the Massachusetts AIDS Action Committee. “There is a lack of information or general awareness.”

“We see it every day at AIDS Action when we talk to young people who have never had basic sex education. And we see it every day when someone newly diagnosed walks in our door and is in a panic because they don’t know the first thing about HIV.”

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