Tiger Blood Positive: How Charlie Sheen Helped Public Health

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In the course of a few hours, Charlie Sheen's disclosure of his HIV status did for HIV awareness what no public health measure would ever have accomplished. This is now known as the so-called "Charlie Sheen effect," and despite his publicly wacky way of disclosing his illness, we welcome it.

Charlie Sheen via Shutterstock Charlie Sheen via Shutterstock

Charlie Sheen may be a bit wacky, but disclosing to the public his very real, and very serious diagnosis that he's HIV positive may have been the single biggest force in HIV awareness in over a decade. In fact, one could call it a sort of D-Day, or Disclosure Day, if you will, with regard to its magnitude.

In a quasi-experimental approach analyzing Bloomberg Terminal and Google trends, investigators at San Diego State University discovered that on the day Charlie Sheen went public with his news, there was a 265 percent increase in news reports that mentioned HIV 6,500 stories on Google News placing Mr. Sheen s admission at the top 1 percent of HIV-related news in the last seven years.

According to a research letter written by John W. Ayers and colleagues, which was published in JAMA Internal Medicine, within a short period after Charlie Sheen s news, the following took place:

  • Greatest number of HIV-related Google searches ever recorded in the United States
  • 75 million more searches included the term "HIV" (which is short for human immunodeficiency virus)
  • 25 million searches directly relevant to public health outcomes (i.e. condoms, HIV symptoms, or HIV testing)
  • All HIV-related searches were 417 percent higher than expected on D-Day
  • Searches related to condoms were 72 percent higher than expected 24 hours after D-Day (remaining higher for 48 hours)
  • Searches for HIV-related symptoms were 540 percent higher than expected
  • HIV testing was 214 percent higher
  • The latter two spiked the hour after D-Day and remained so 72 hours later

Dr. Ayers has dubbed this the Charlie Sheen effect and suggested that public health outreach ought to coordinate efforts with the press to provide the public with prevention-focused coverage.

We have seen the power that celebrities have in the media and for better or worse, one celebrity can be a revolutionary force in the way people approach their health.

In a study published in BMJ, the authors report that celebrity endorsements designate credibility to products/ideas which can catalyze herd behavior. Celebrity influence can be harnessed for good and abused for harm and the authors recommend that health professionals should capitalize on this phenomenon during patient encounters to educate patients and discredit bogus medical advice (and promote evidence-based practices).

We have not been shy about our criticism of some of the misinformation that celebrities can propagate and the level of harm that can result. (See for example, our classic publication, "Celebrities vs. Science.") From stem cell face lifts to radical bilateral mastectomies for non-cancerous breast lesions to phony pain creams that cost $15,000, to name a few it is somewhat of a relief that at least, Charlie Sheen s diagnosis brought HIV back into the public discourse.

According to an editor's note published in the same issue of JAMA, Mitchell H. Katz, MD, writes, "We can provide more effective messages about public health if we adapt traditional methods of health education to our increasingly social media-driven world and make sure the messages are available in advance of the next celebrity disclosure."

I couldn't agree more.