The “celebrity effect”: how did Charlie Sheen help raise HIV awareness

The “celebrity effect”: how did Charlie Sheen help raise HIV awareness

Photo by Phil McCarten / Reuters

When Charlie Sheen revealed in an interview for NBC’s “Today” show on November 17th, 2015 that he was HIV-positive, media coverage as well as public interest on the subject exploded.

A study was conducted to attest that shortly after, by researchers from San Diego State University’s School of Public Health. They found that media coverage of HIV on the day of Sheen’s announcement ranked in the top 1% compared with previous years. Also, his disclosure was linked to the highest number of Google searches on the topic of HIV ever recorded in the U.S.

Carl Sciortino, executive director of the Massachusetts AIDS Action Committee, said, according to CNN, that “the sheer volume of searches shows how much interest there is, but it’s also an alarm bell. There is a lack of information or general awareness. We see it every day at AIDS Action when we talk to young people who have never had basic sex education. And we see it every day when someone newly diagnosed walks in our door and is in a panic because they don’t know the first thing about HIV”.

The “celebrity effect” in this case is pretty evident. And it is by no means the first time a celebrity brings public attention to diseases that are otherwise overlooked or very little discussed.

Lance Armstrong came out about his diagnosed testicular cancer, urging young men to get tested and founded the Livestrong Foundation, meant to assist other cancer survivors like himself. Michael J. Fox also raised public awareness about Parkinson’s disease after he disclosed his condition in 1998 and became an advocate in the search for a cure.

Photo by Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Photo by Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Another case that has been studied in depth is Angelina Jolie. After publicly announcing her decision to undergo a double mastectomy because she inherited the BRCA1 gene which put her at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer, public interest in the subject increased significantly. The U.S. National Institute of Health reported a massive increase in traffic to the National Cancer Institute’s online resources.