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Charlie Sheen's announcement boosted HIV awareness, research suggests

Published 22/02/2016

Professor John Ayers said:
Professor John Ayers said: "While no-one should be forced to reveal their HIV status and all diagnoses are tragic, Sheen's disclosure may benefit public health by potentially helping many learn more about HIV and HIV prevention"

Actor Charlie Sheen's bombshell announcement on a US chat show that he was HIV positive may have had a massive public health benefit, research suggests.

After his confession on NBC's Today Show on November 17 last year, HIV-related Google searches in the US hit record levels.

The number of news reports mentioning the Aids virus also soared.

Experts said the surge in awareness was likely to be a boost for public health. Professor John Ayers, from San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health in the US, said: "Charlie Sheen's disclosure was a potential earth-shaking event for HIV prevention in the United States.

"While no-one should be forced to reveal their HIV status and all diagnoses are tragic, Sheen's disclosure may benefit public health by potentially helping many learn more about HIV and HIV prevention."

Sheen, who starred in the popular sitcom Two And A Half Men as well as the movies Wall Street and Platoon, was the highest-paid actor on television in 2010.

But a year later his life and career were in a tailspin as reports of alcohol and drug abuse, marital problems and mental instability hit the headlines. His contract for Two And A Half Men was terminated by CBS and Warner Bros in March 2011.

His public announcement that he had been diagnosed HIV positive four years earlier caused a sensation.

To assess its impact, Prof Ayers led a team of researchers who scoured Google search histories and monitored news coverage.

They found that the day of Sheen's disclosure coincided with a 265% increase in news reports mentioning HIV archived on the Bloomberg Terminal, a computer service providing information to professionals.

An additional 6,500 stories were reported on the Google News website alone.

Sheen's appearance on the Today Show also corresponded with the greatest number of HIV-related Google searches ever recorded on a single day in the US.

About 2.75 million more searches including the term "HIV" were made than expected, based on previous trends - a rise of 417%.

In addition 1.25 million more searches than expected were made that included the terms "condoms", "HIV symptoms", and "HIV testing".

This was against a background of apparent declining interest in HIV as a health issue.

Between 2004 and 2015, the rate of news reporting about HIV had reduced from 67 stories per 1,000 to just 12, said the researchers writing in the journal Jama Internal Medicine.

Of more than 1.2 million people in the US believed to be living with HIV, nearly one in eight are said to be unaware that they have the virus.

Study co-author Eric Leas, a student of health communication at the University of California at San Diego, said: "Celebrity disclosures are not new to HIV, with Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson serving as noteworthy examples. Yet, Sheen's disclosure could be different.

"With Sheen, unlike with Magic Johnson for instance, we have smartphones in our pockets that we can easily use to learn about HIV within seconds with a single search or click.

"At the same time, social media can expand the effect of Sheen's disclosure beyond the initial television broadcast as networks form around celebrities."

However Prof Ayers said the public health community appeared not to be making the most of the opportunity offered by Sheen.

"Sadly, the public health community may be missing the mark," he said. "I'm unaware of any major HIV educational campaigns that are using Sheen's disclosure for public health outreach."

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