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HIV Testing Peaks with Charlie Sheen Disclosure

By Labmedica International staff writers
Posted on 03 Jul 2017
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Image: A new study found Charlie Sheen\'s HIV disclosure corresponded with millions of online search queries for HIV prevention and testing (Photo courtesy of OraSure Technologies).
Image: A new study found Charlie Sheen\'s HIV disclosure corresponded with millions of online search queries for HIV prevention and testing (Photo courtesy of OraSure Technologies).
A new study has found that record levels of HIV testing corresponded with celebrity actor Charlie Sheen's public disclosure of his being HIV-positive on a popular television program.

On November 17, 2015, Charlie Sheen disclosed he was HIV-positive on NBC's Today Show. How might such celebrity announcements affect public health in the population at large? That's a question scientists and advocates grappled with in a previous study published in 2016 (JAMA Internal Medicine) led by John W. Ayers, professor at San Diego State University (San Diego, CA, USA). They found that Sheen's disclosure corresponded with millions of online search queries for HIV prevention and testing, even though neither Sheen himself nor public health leaders called for such action at the time.

In the current follow-up study, Prof. Ayers and colleagues found that not only did Sheen's disclosure lead people to seek information about HIV, it also corresponded with record levels of at-home rapid HIV testing sales. The team collected data on weekly sales of OraQuick, the only rapid in-home HIV test kit available in the United States, to investigate whether online queries (based on Google Trends data on searches with "test," "tests," or "testing" and "HIV") could be correlated with any uptick in HIV testing.

"Our strategy allowed us to provide a real-world estimation of the 'Charlie Sheen effect' on HIV prevention and contrast that effect with our past formative assessment using internet searches," said study coauthor Eric Leas, research associate in a SDSU-UCSD joint program.

The week of Sheen's disclosure coincided with a near doubling in OraQuick sales, which reached an all-time high. Sales remained significantly higher for the following 3 weeks, with 8,225 more sales than predicted earlier.

"In absolute terms, it's hard to appreciate the magnitude of Sheen's disclosure," said coauthor Benjamin Althouse, research scientist with the Institute of Disease Modeling (WA, USA), "However, when we compared Sheen's disclosure to other, traditional awareness campaigns the 'Charlie Sheen effect' is astonishing." OraQuick sales in the time period around Sheen's disclosure were nearly 8 times greater than sales around World Aids Day, one of the most well-known and longest-running HIV prevention awareness events.

The team’s findings also reinforce past analyses of Google search data. Using online searches alone the team was able to predict HIV testing sales within 7% for any given weeks. "Public health leaders are often cautious, choosing to wait for traditional data instead of taking reasonable action in response to novel data, like online searches," said Prof. Ayers, "Our findings underscore the value of big media data for yielding rapid intelligence to make public health actionable and more responsive to the public it serves."

"Public health must ready itself for the next Sheen-like event by embracing big media data for decision-making," said coauthor Mark Dredze, a Johns Hopkins University computer scientist, adding that the window still may not be fully closed on the Charlie Sheen effect.

"Our findings build on earlier studies that suggest empathy is easier to motivate others when the empathy is targeted toward an individual versus a group" said first author Jon-Patrick Allem, research scientist with University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, "It is easy to imagine that a single individual, like Sheen, disclosing his HIV status may be more compelling and motivating for people than an unnamed mass of individuals or a lecture from public health leaders."

The study, by Allem JP et al, was published May 18, 2017, in the journal Prevention Science.

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