Whether he meant to or not, Charlie Sheen may have created a positive impact for public health when he disclosed his HIV status in November, according to a research letter published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine (The Journal of the American Medical Association).
In “News and Internet Searches About Human Immunodeficiency Virus After Charlie Sheen’s Disclosure,” the authors counted the number of media reports and Internet searches related to HIV in the weeks after the celebrity announcement and compared it to the frequency of such reports and searches in the previous decade, to see whether it generated renewed attention to the virus.
“Just as with celebrities Rock Hudson’s and Magic Johnson’s disclosures of their HIV-positive status, Sheen’s disclosure may be similarly reinvigorating awareness and prevention of HIV,” the study says.
The authors, led by John W. Ayers of the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University, used a Bloomberg Terminal to identify reports with the term “HIV” in English-language media coverage and turned to Google Trends to count searches that contained the term “HIV” and variations on “HIV testing,” “HIV symptoms” and “condom.” They analyzed these measures going back to January 2004, when Google began collecting data.
The review of media coverage showed that the frequency of news reports has decreased from 67 stories per 1,000 in 2004 to 12 stories per 1,000 in 2015. However, “the day of Sheen’s disclosure,” the research found, “coincided with a 265% increase in news reports mentioning HIV (97% of which also mentioned Sheen), with more than 6500 stories on Google News alone, which placed Sheen’s disclosure among the top 1% of HIV-related media days in the past 7 years.”
The researchers used an algorithm to predict numbers of searches based on past data and found that Sheen’s disclosure corresponded with about 2.75 million more searches including the term “HIV” than expected. The day of the announcement saw all searches regarding HIV at 417 percent higher than expected. Hourly data showed that searches related to condoms were 72 percent higher than expected in the 24 hours after Sheen’s disclosure, while searches related to HIV symptoms and HIV testing were 540 percent and 214 percent higher, respectively.
Still, “news and search trends are only proxies for awareness and healthy behaviors,” the authors write. Information such as rates of HIV testing would be needed to clarify their findings.
Sheen is hardly the first star in a history of celebrities who have contracted HIV, as CNN wrote the day after the actor’s disclosure. Several of them—including Hudson and Johnson, as well as figures whose illnesses were only revealed after their deaths, like world-renowned dancer Rudolf Nureyev and Brady Bunch star Robert Reed—were diagnosed before the advent of Google, but their stories certainly captured the attention of the media.
In 1996, Newsweek featured Johnson on its cover as the basketball star returned to play with the Los Angeles Lakers. “It’s More Than Magic,” the cover said, “New Hope for Living Longer With HIV.” Johnson’s disclosure brought “a sea change in perceptions of the virus and who could get it,” CNN wrote. He “became a bellwether for progress in the field.”
Nearly 25 years after Johnson revealed his diagnosis at a press conference in November 1991, Sheen’s announcement might also help raise awareness about the virus, according to the research letter. One suggestion the authors offer to “leverage the ‘Charlie Sheen’ effect” would be to coordinate “prevention-focused press with coverage related to Sheen as with celebrity Angelina Jolie’s prophylactic mastectomy.”
"While no one should be forced to reveal HIV status, Sheen's disclosure may benefit public health by helping many people learn more about HIV infection and prevention,” the study concludes. “More must be done to make this benefit larger and lasting."