Study says there was a ‘Charlie Sheen Effect’ on HIV Awareness

By Cheri Cheng - 22 Feb '16 16:11PM

Charlie Sheen's story about his journey with HIV helped increase awareness about the sexually transmitted infection that leads to AIDS, a new study said.

For this study, the research team, with lead author John W. Ayers at the San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health, set out to analyze how the actor's story, told on NBC's Today Show back in Nov. 17 of last year, would affect HIV awareness.

The researchers, who included Mark Dredze from Johns Hopkins and Benjamin M. Althouse, a research scientist at the Institute for Disease Modeling and the Santa Fe Institute, noted that several studies have found evidence that the "celebrity effect" exists. This term refers to when awareness about a particular topic increases after a celebrity is attached to it

One of the most popular cases of the "celebrity effect" is Angelina Jolie. When the actress penned an article about her decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy due to her genetic testing results, there was an increase in the number of referrals for genetic testing in at-risk women.

In order to assess the "Charlie Sheen Effect," the team looked into public archives for trends dating back to 2004 with the help of the Bloomberg Terminal and Google Trends. The team focused on the trendy topics that popped up in U.S. searches after Sheen told his story. The topics were divided into four categories, which included searches involving the words "HIV" and "condom(s)," HIV symptoms and HIV testing.

The researchers found that on the day of Sheen's disclosure, there was a 265 percent spike in news reports that mentioned HIV on the Bloomberg Terminal. 97 percent of these reports involved Sheen. The researchers recorded an additional 6,500 stories via Google News.

On the same day, searches for HIV in general soared with 2.75 million more searches than usual.

"Charlie Sheen's disclosure was potentially the most significant domestic HIV prevention event ever," researcher Mark Dredze from Johns Hopkins said in the press release.

"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-ingrained 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. It is an example of how decades of public health messaging can focus the population on life-saving action when the relevant behaviors become salient."

The study's findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine.

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