Charlie Sheen's "Today Show" HIV Announcement Had a Huge Impact

May 18th 2017

When Charlie Sheen first announced that he was HIV-positive on the "Today Show" it was big news. Worldwide, there were 36.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS in 2015—the year Sheen made his announcement.

But one epidemiologist notes that Sheen's disclosure may have had a hugely positive effect on HIV awareness.

Last year, Dr. John W. Ayers, a computational epidemiologist at San Diego State University, was studying Google searches and news articles during the period around Sheen's announcement. His study, which appeared in JAMA Internal Medicine noted, unsurprisingly, that the number of searches and news stories involving the terms"HIV" showed a dramatic uptick in the days following Sheen's announcement. That's hardly a shock. Sheen's admission that he was HIV-positive was covered extensively.

But there was another interesting uptick in the HIV-related search terms. Not only did people search more for "HIV," people also searched more for "HIV" and "symptoms," "signs of," and "testing."

Ayers hypothesized that Sheen's disclosure might actually have had a positive effect on HIV awareness, encouraging people to get tested themselves.

In an email to New York Magazine, Ayers was unequivocal: “Sheen’s disclosure is the most significant domestic HIV-prevention event in the last decade, even though it was unplanned and was not framed as a public-health event."

Now, there's even more reason to think that Sheen's disclosure had a positive effect.

Ayers and his team were back it at it, publishing the results to a new study in Prevention Science. The study revealed that not only did internet searches for HIV testing spike after the Sheen disclosure, so did real-world action. According to this new study, sales for an HIV testing kit OraQuick hit record highs. The study says "OraQuick sales reached record highs the week of Sheen’s disclosure, increasing 95 percent...that week and remained elevated for 4 weeks... "

Just look at the jump in sales.

This graph comes directly from the study:

The first graph shows the remarkable jump in sales right around Sheen's disclosure. The second graph compares the effect of Sheen's disclosure on OraQuick sales with the effect of World AIDS Day. The study notes that "excess OraQuick sales following Sheen’s disclosure were equivalent to about 7 World Aids Days."

What's OraQuick?

OraQuick is one of only two home HIV testing kits currently available, according to the CDC, who write "The OraQuick In-Home HIV Test provides rapid results in the home. The testing procedure involves swabbing your mouth for an oral fluid sample and using a kit to test it. Results are available in 20 minutes. If you test positive, you will need a follow-up test. The manufacturer provides confidential counseling and referral to follow-up testing sites. Because the level of antibody in oral fluid is lower than it is in blood, oral fluid tests find infection later after exposure than do blood tests. Up to 1 in 12 infected people may test false-negative with this test."

Getting tested regularly for HIV and other STIs is hugely important.

According to the CDC, of the 850,000–950,000 individuals living with HIV in the United States, "one fourth of individuals living with HIV are unaware that they have the virus." And people who are unaware that they have HIV present a twofold problem.

First, those who do not know they are HIV positive do not seek treatment—and anti-retroviral therapy has been shown to dramatically increase the life expectancy of HIV patients. In terms of the success of this therapy, also known as the AIDS "cocktail," early detection is key. According to Medwiser, HIV patients who are treated early will live an average of 11 years longer.

Second, those who are unaware of their status cannot take steps to ensure that they do not pass the virus on to others, compounding the scourge of the epidemic.

So go get tested.

For more information about STD and HIV testing, check out the CDC's guide here.

[h/t Science of Us]

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