Actor Charlie Sheen was called a lot of things during his bad-boy days. Until now, public health promoter wasn't one of them.
Sheen's revelation that he's infected with the AIDS virus prompted the greatest number of HIV-related Google searches recorded in the United States since 2004, and more than 1 million of them involved public health-related information.
That's according to a new study from San Diego State University research professor John Ayers and colleagues, who examined the impact of the announcement Nov. 17 by the former star of TV's "Two and a Half Men."
"While no one should be forced to reveal HIV status, Sheen's disclosure may benefit public health by helping many people learn more about HIV infection and prevention," the researchers wrote in a report published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.
They analyzed Google trends data along with news trends from a Bloomberg LP terminal system from 2004 through three weeks after Sheen's announcement.
Given historic trends, there were almost 3 million more searches about HIV on Nov. 17 than expected, and more than 1 million were related to important public health messages because they included search terms for condoms, HIV symptoms or HIV testing. The study doesn't list the total number of HIV-related searches that day on Google.
The researchers also found there were more than 6,500 HIV-related news stories — not counting duplicates from the same news source — on Google News alone on Nov. 17, reversing a decade-long decline in news reporting about the virus.
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Sheen's tumultuous professional and personal life has made news before — for public outbursts, drug and alcohol use and prostitution. The study didn't look at the online impact of those headlines.
The researchers noted that former NBA star Magic Johnson sparked increased HIV awareness when he disclosed his own infection, in 1991, before the Internet was so ubiquitous. They said public health authorities could leverage the "Charlie Sheen effect" to keep the spotlight on HIV awareness, and that Sheen's disclosure could potentially have a greater impact because of how connected people are to information.
About 1 million people nationwide are HIV-infected but government estimates say about 150,000 of them don't know it — emphasizing the importance of better awareness, Ayers said.
A journal editorial says public health authorities face a challenge when blockbuster celebrity health news surfaces, and need to make sure useful health information is easily accessible to consumers at such moments.