Sheen and his battle with HIV is the latest instance that a celebrity has raised awareness of an illness or public health issue.
When Angelina Jolie removed both of her breasts in 2013, genetic testing referrals for women at risk of breast cancer more than doubled. Sheen announced that he was HIV positive in November, leading to an explosion of discussion of the illness, writes Sandee LaMotte for CNN.
Charlie Sheen announcement helps to boost HIV awareness
Now a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows just how great an effect Sheen’s declaration had. Researchers at the San Diego State University School of Public Health analyzed media and internet searches following the star’s November 17 announcement.
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Coverage of HIV had been falling in recent years. In 2004 67 stories per 1,000 spoke about the illness, while in 2015 that number had fallen to 12 per 1,000. On the day of the announcement media coverage of HIV ranked in the top 1%.
From November 17 to December 8, researchers found that 2.75 million more Google searches than expected contained the word HIV. Researchers say that 1.25 million of those searches “were directly relevant to public health outcomes because they included search terms for condoms, HIV symptoms, or HIV testing.”
So-called celebrity effect can be positive or negative
“The day of Sheen’s disclosure was the the biggest abrupt HIV event in our existence,” said JD Davids, managing editor of TheBody.com, an HIV/AIDS awareness site. “It was our largest traffic day ever, by far. Our usual top traffic day is World AIDS Day, and the day of Sheen’s disclosure and the two that followed drastically exceeded that level of activity.”
“The sheer volume of searches shows how much interest there is, but it’s also an alarm bell,” said Carl Sciortino, executive director of the Massachusetts AIDS Action Committee. “There is a lack of information or general awareness.”
However the celebrity effect is not always positive, and some have taken to promoting treatments or advice that are not corroborated by the medical community. Experts say that the medical community needs to improve its own communication efforts in order to harness the benefits of the celebrity effect while also preventing the spread of misinformation.
<h3″>Sheen should collaborate with health organizations
“Charlie himself has a real opportunity to do some good. We would all benefit if he would work with public health organizations to figure out the right message and story to put out there,” said Sciortino.
Sheen previously claimed to have stopped taking his HIV medication after tests showed that the virus was only present at minimal levels. However his manager later insisted that the star was back on his treatment after virus levels increased.
Doctors recommend staying on the treatment, and any celebrity endorsement of alternative therapies can affect patient choices. The important thing for health professionals is to convince celebrities to stick to the advice offered by the medical community. If they do so it can have serious beneficial effects for raising awareness.
“For example, most of the world still doesn’t know that we now have a pill a day that prevents HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). If Charlie got that story out there, we could save a lot of lives,” added Sciortino.
With celebrity comes a responsibility to look out for the best interests of impressionable fans, and Sheen must be careful not to endorse treatments that have not been proven to be effective.