‘HIV’ was Googled like crazy after Charlie Sheen’s interview

woman reading her phone

Actor Charlie Sheen’s disclosure on national TV that he has the virus that causes AIDS sparked massive new public interest in avoiding infection, including a flood of news coverage and record internet searches.

“Charlie Sheen’s disclosure was potentially the most significant domestic HIV prevention event ever,” says Mark Dredze, assistant research professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University and a member of a team from several universities that tracked the impact of the actor’s announcement that he is HIV-positive.

“More must be done to make the ‘Charlie Sheen Effect’ larger and lasting.”

The findings, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, found record highs in domestic news coverage of HIV and in Google searches for information about HIV and HIV prevention soon after Sheen’s announcement.

Sheen appeared Nov. 17, 2015, on NBC’s Today Show, saying he had been diagnosed as HIV-positive about four years earlier, does not have AIDS, and has been on anti-viral drugs to prevent the infection from progressing.

Dredze has previously used online data to study the spread of flu, mental illness trends, and other health topics. He worked on the Sheen study with John W. Ayers of the San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health and Benjamin M. Althouse of the Institute for Disease Modeling and the Santa Fe Institute. Ayers is lead author of the new paper.

Researchers used the Bloomberg Terminal and Google Trends to collect data describing HIV and HIV prevention engagement since 2004. They identified news reports mentioning HIV and Google searches in the United States mentioning HIV, HIV symptoms, condoms, and HIV testing.

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“This big data strategy allowed us to provide a formative assessment of the potential impacts of Charlie Sheen’s HIV-positive disclosure at no cost,” Althouse says. “We can directly assess the diffusion of media in the population and how the population is seeking out information based on the timing and content of their Google searches.”

The day of Sheen’s disclosure coincided with a 265 percent increase in news reports mentioning HIV (97 percent of which also mentioned Sheen) archived on the Bloomberg Terminal; previously, HIV-related news stories had been in historic decline. An additional 6,500 stories were reported on Google News alone.

“Charlie Sheen’s disclosure was potentially the most significant domestic HIV prevention event ever.”

The Today Show interview also corresponded with the greatest number of HIV-related Google searches ever recorded in the United States on a single day, Ayers says. About 2.75 million more searches than expected, based on previous trends, included the term HIV that day, with 1.25 million more searches than expected including terms for condoms, HIV symptoms, or HIV testing.

In relative terms, all HIV searches were 417 percent higher than expected the day of Sheen’s disclosure. Condom searches (such as “buy condoms”) increased 75 percent. HIV symptom (such as “signs of HIV”) and HIV testing (such as “find HIV testing”) searches increased 540 and 214 percent, respectively, the day of Sheen’s disclosure and remained higher for three days.

“Public health for more than three decades has delivered a consistent message about HIV: Get tested, know the signs and use condoms,” Ayers says. “That message was so well-ingrained that when the public was presented with Sheen’s HIV-positive disclosure, they began seeking out public health salient information on HIV testing, the signs of HIV and condoms. It is an example of how decades of public health messaging can focus the population on life-saving action when the relevant behaviors become salient.”

Celebrities going public with an HIV-positive status, such as Magic Johnson, are not new. “Yet, Sheen’s disclosure could be different,” Dredze says. “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.”

Sheen’s disclosure has already produced tremendous public health benefits. Ayers says. “More must be done to make the ‘Charlie Sheen Effect’ larger and lasting.”

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill contributed to the work.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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