Charlie Sheen, an American actor, opened up about his HIV diagnosis on November 17, 2015. Many scientists have questioned how celebrity announcements impact public health on a grand scale. A team of researchers at San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health sought to find the answer to that question.
Previous studies revealed that Sheen’s public disclosure had a close similarity with millions of people, driving them to perform online search queries for HIV testing and prevention, even though public health leaders nor Sheen called for such an action.
A new, follow-up study discovered that Sheen’s public disclosure of his condition not only pushed people to search for information about human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), but also correlated with record numbers of rapid at-home HIV testing sales.
The research team collected and analyzed data on weekly sales of OraQuick, the only available rapid in-home HIV test in the U.S., to determine whether Internet searches, based primarily on Google Trends data on specific terms such as “HIV”, “testing”, “test” or “tests”, could be associated with any small increase 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 research associate in the SDSU-UCSD join doctoral program in public health and coauthor of the study Eric Leas.
The findings revealed the week of Sheen’s public disclosure comes at a time when OraQuick sales nearly doubled, reaching an unparalleled high. For the following three weeks, sales stayed considerably higher, with a total of 8,225 more sales that what was expected.
OraQuick sales were almost eight times greater around the time of Sheen’s disclosure, compared to the sales around World Aids Day, an event dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS epidemic.
The researchers noted that the findings support the past studies of Google Trend search data. Utilizing Internet queries alone, the researchers were able to forecast HIV test kit sales within seven percent margin of error for any given weeks.
A Johns Hopkins University computer scientists and coauthor of the study, Mark Dredze, added “public health must ready itself for the next Sheen-like event by embracing big media data for decision making.”
The study was published in the journal Prevention Science.