Charlie Sheen effect? ‘Record levels’ of STD testing followed actor’s HIV confession

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

On Nov. 17, 2015, Charlie Sheen told the world he was HIV-positive during an interview on NBC’s Today Show. Now, almost two years later, researchers say the actor may have inadvertently shed light on testing and practicing safe sex: “record levels” of HIV testing followed his confession.

Scientists from San Diego State University have dubbed it the “Charlie Sheen effect.” A-list actress Angelina Jolie, also had a similar effect in 2013 when she opened up about her double mastectomy after she tested positive for carrying the BRCA gene mutation.

READ MORE: The Charlie Sheen effect  how his HIV disclosure had a big public health impact

“Just like everybody, I watched on the Today Show when Sheen disclosed his HIV status, but when I watched it as a public health advocate, I saw that neither Sheen nor [Matt] Lauer were talking about HIV prevention,” the study’s lead author, Dr. John Ayers, told Global News.
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“The headlines after that said little about HIV prevention, and I thought, ‘That’s sad, because wouldn’t it be great to get the positive message out there?’ The message has been consistent: know the signs and get tested,” Ayers said.

As it turns out, however, Sheen’s confession led to a spike in online searches about HIV symptoms, how to get tested and how to practice safe sex, according to Ayers.

His team is calling the weeks-long blip in HIV awareness “astonishing” and an “earth-shaking event” for HIV prevention in the U.S.

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

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This is the second piece to Ayers’ research. At first, he looked into whether Sheen and Lauer’s conversation led to people reading up about HIV prevention. In 2016, Ayers released his findings: 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.

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

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(Sheen ended up sharing the study’s findings on social media and started up a more conscious approach to promoting HIV prevention, Ayers said.)

READ MORE: Angelina Jolie reveals she had ovaries and fallopian tubes removed

But critics told Ayers that Google searches don’t necessarily equate to changes in behaviour. That’s when Ayers began the second half of his research.

This time he reached out to OraQuick, the leading company that providers HIV testing in clinics and even with at-home tests sold in American pharmacies.

The week of Sheen’s disclosure coincided with a near doubling of at-home HIV tests — an “all-time high” for the company. Sales remained significantly higher for the following three weeks also.

“We saw that people had engaged in record numbers even though what they got was just a nudge, just hearing Sheen talk about it,” Ayers said.

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Keep in mind, Sheen’s confession wasn’t a public service announcement or a campaign. It was an organic moment between the actor and interviewer.

It was the same for Jolie. Ayers said that everyday people share their stories about skin cancer and tanning or lung cancer and smoking, and their stories go viral online, too.

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It’s a trend public health officials need to pick up on, he said.

“We live in a reality-TV society. These real messages resonate more because we’re so inundated with traditional messages. I want to foster a public health infrastructure where we do more listening and responding instead of talking from the top down,” Ayers said.

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Gary Lacasse, executive director of the Canadian AIDS Society, suggests the Sheen effect trickled into Canada, too.

“When a celebrity comes out with his HIV status, it automatically increases awareness in the HIV prevention movement and it translates into people looking into their own sexual health,” he told Global News.

“Sheen is a household name in Canada. I think [his candidness] is a good thing because it increases awareness and reduces stigma,” Lacasse said.
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Ayers’ full findings were published Thursday in the journal Prevention Science.

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