Charlie Sheen's HIV Disclosure Measurably Raised Public Awareness

Charlie Sheen (R) discussing his HIV diagnosis with TV host Matt Lauer on the "Today" show in late 2015. NBC/Getty Images
Charlie Sheen (R) discussing his HIV diagnosis with TV host Matt Lauer on the "Today" show in late 2015. NBC/Getty Images

Welcome! You now live in a world in which a celebrity's publicized health problems may do more to educate the public about communicable disease prevention than all the doctor's office pamphlets on the planet.

A paper published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine reports that the “Charlie Sheen Effect” could be an important step in renewing a flagging public awareness of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).


On November 17,  2015, actor Charlie Sheen announced on NBC's “Today” show that he had been living with HIV for the past four years. HIV, a sexually transmitted disease associated with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), was first diagnosed in the United States in 1981, and has since escalated to a global pandemic. Worldwide 37 million people suffer from the disease, and 2 million more new cases are reported each year.

In the 1980's, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States spawned one of the highest-profile and most effective public health campaigns of the 20th century, yet awareness of the disease in the United States has flagged in recent years. More than 1.2 million people in the U.S. are HIV positive, but one in eight people infected with the virus don't know they have it. Although drugs have been developed to suppress the levels of the virus within a person's body, preventing the communication of the disease is obviously preferable to treating it.

According to the new study, analysis of Google searches conducted during the days after Sheen's announcement might prove to be a turning point in how we understand and conduct public health outreach campaigns.  

"Charlie Sheen's disclosure was a potential earth shaking event for HIV prevention in the United States," says John Ayers, a public health professor at San Diego State University's Graduate School of Public Health, and lead author, in a press release accompanying the publication of the article.

Ayers and his team used Sheen's announcement of his HIV-positive status to study how news stories covering it led to people in the United States searching Google for information about HIV symptoms, testing, and prevention through condom use.

Using data generated by Bloomberg Terminal and Google Trends, the research team collected and analyzed news reports and Google search data about HIV going back to 2004. The day of Sheen's announcement, the research team discovered a 265 percent jump in news stories about HIV, most of which also mentioned Sheen, even though news stories about HIV had been steadily declining for the preceding decade.

In addition, the day of Sheen's disclosure racked up the most HIV-related Google searches of all time, collecting 2.75 million more Google searches than expected, based on past search trends. Condom use, HIV symptoms and HIV testing gathered another 1.25 million more searches than expected in the 24 hours after Sheen's “Today” show appearance.

Although Sheen is by no means the first celebrity to go public with their HIV diagnoses—the research team cite Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson as other examples—this case is different in that it reflects a new trend in public health awareness.

"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," says Eric Leas, a student of health communication at the University of California San Diego and study coauthor.

Though the Charlie Sheen-fueled spike in interest around HIV prevention and testing only lasted a couple days after his “Today” show appearance, it illuminated an aspect of our collective behavior that can be used to help educate about communicable diseases in the future.