The Charlie Sheen effect: How his HIV disclosure had a big public health impact

He’s been labelled a bad boy and womanizer, but what about a champion for public health and sexual education?

In a new study, researchers say actor Charlie Sheen’s move to disclose his HIV status led to record highs in Google searches about the sexually transmitted disease, its symptoms, where to get tested and how to have safe sex.

On Nov. 17 last year during an appearance on NBC’s Today Show, Sheen admitted he was HIV-positive.

“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,” Dr. John Ayers, co-author of the San Diego State University-led research, said.

“Sheen’s disclosure was a potential earth-shaking event for HIV prevention in the United States,” he said.

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To conduct their study, Ayers and his team monitored Google searches on HIV, condoms, HIV symptoms and signs and HIV testing.

READ MORE: Charlie Sheen reveals he’s HIV-positive

On the day that Sheen dropped the news about his health, there was a 265 per cent increase in news reports that mention HIV (97 per cent were about Sheen). At the time, HIV-related news reports were encountering a “historic decline.”

Nov. 17 is also when the greatest number of HIV-related Google searches was ever recorded in the U.S. in a single day.

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That’s a 417 per cent hike in HIV-related searches. Condom use searches climbed by 75 per cent and searches for signs of HIV and HIV testing increased by 540 and 214 per cent. The searches stayed on record highs for three days.

Chris Thomas, spokesperson for the AIDS Committee of Toronto, told Global News that Sheen’s admission helped ACT shed light on common misconceptions about HIV.

Canadians wanted to know about what was considered an undetectable viral load, or the mental health challenges that come with an HIV diagnosis. Others asked ACT if Sheen was a criminal and if he should do jail time.

“I think it was the first time that a lot of people heard about HIV prevention tools beyond just condoms,” Thomas said.

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READ MORE: A made-in-Canada HIV health strategy is making waves worldwide, just not in Canada

There are drug cocktails and treatments that help those living with HIV live normal lives. The medical community has made great strides in keeping HIV-positive patients healthy.

“A lot of people have an understanding of HIV and AIDS that is still very much rooted in the epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, when thousands of people were dying and conversations about the virus were more urgent and public,” Thomas told Global News.

“This was an opportunity to provide an update and say, ‘hey, times have changed and here are all of the new ways people living with HIV can have long and healthy lives.’”

This isn’t the first time a celebrity confession aided in raising awareness about a public health issue. In 2013, Angelina Jolie told the world she had a double mastectomy after she tested positive for carrying the BRCA gene mutation.

READ MORE: The Angelina Effect – why the actress had her ovaries, fallopian tubes removed

In candid New York Times pieces, she shared her experience going through her diagnosis of early signs of cancer. Jolie went into premature menopause and conceded that she wouldn’t be able to have any more children.

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That news led to a steep rise in searches for breast cancer information, along with more women asking their doctors about BRCA gene testing, researchers reported.

Ayers’ full findings were published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Read the study here.

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