HIV awareness soars after Charlie Sheen’s disclosure of positive status

Charlie Sheen’s Nov. 17, 2015, public disclosure of his HIV status on NBC’s Today Show corresponded with the greatest number of HIV-related Google searches ever recorded in the United States on a single day, potentially helping many learn more about HIV and HIV prevention.

 “This Charlie Sheen effect has generated one of the greatest public health awareness moments for HIV,” said study co-author Seth Noar, a professor at the UNC School of Media and Journalism and an expert on HIV prevention media campaigns. “Sheen’s disclosure could make public health messages about HIV that much more salient, especially at a time when HIV receded from the headlines.”

The findings, published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine, come on the heels of historic declines in domestic HIV awareness and prevention. Just two weeks before Sheen’s disclosure, Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, publicly bemoaned the state of domestic HIV control. Of the more than 1.2 million people in the United States living with HIV, nearly one in eight are unaware of his or her HIV-positive status. The day of Sheen’s disclosure coincided with a 265 percent increase in news reports mentioning HIV (97 percent of which also mentioned Sheen) archived on the Bloomberg Terminal. An additional 6,500 stories were reported on Google News alone. 

Compared to an average day, there were approximately 2.75 million more Google searches that included the term HIV on the day of Sheen’s disclosure, with 1.25 million more searches that included terms for condoms, HIV symptoms or HIV testing. This placed Sheen’s disclosure among the top 1 percent of historic HIV-related media events. In relative terms, all HIV searches were 417 percent higher than expected the day of Sheen’s disclosure. Condom searches (such as “buy condoms”) increased 75 percent. HIV symptom (such as “signs of HIV”) and HIV testing (such as “find HIV testing”) searches increased 540 and 214 percent, respectively, the day of Sheen’s disclosure and remained higher for three days. The search terms signaled a public health benefit from this one event. 

Although celebrity disclosures are not new to HIV, with Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson serving as noteworthy examples, these kinds of major celebrity disclosures are rare. Also, Sheen’s disclosure could be different. In the age of smartphones, the Internet and social media, the effect could be amplified beyond the initial television broadcasts as networks form around celebrities. 

The study, a collaboration among researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill, San Diego State University, University of California, San Diego, Santa Fe Institute and Johns Hopkins University, could be used to expand educational campaigns that could make the Charlie Sheen effect larger and lasting. “This work sets the stage for developing public health campaigns in the future and maximizing the opportunities to educate the world on how to protect itself from HIV,” said Noar.

Following this release, Charlie Sheen noted that he was "honored, humbled, inspired, hopeful..." from the results of this study.