'Charlie Sheen Effect' Seen in Online Search for HIV Symptoms and Testing, Study Says

Approximately 1 in 8 people with HIV are aware they are infected.

ByABC News
February 22, 2016, 2:00 PM

— -- Last year's announcement by actor Charlie Sheen that he had been diagnosed with HIV put renewed attention on the disease that causes AIDS. And one that effects more than 1.2 million people in the U.S., the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

Sheen announced he was HIV positive in November 2015, four years after he was first diagnosed. Today researchers and doctors found that his announcement corresponded with the largest number of HIV-related searches on Google in the U.S., according to the “News and Internet Searches About Human Immunodeficiency Virus After Charlie Sheen’sDisclosure” study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine today.

John Ayers, of San Diego State University in California, and his co-authors found that there was a 540 percent increase in searches related to HIV symptoms and a 214 percent increase in searches related to HIV testing. The team looked at internet searches through Google Trends and news trends through the Bloomberg Terminal in the week after Sheen made his announcement.

"The difference between this effect and the effect from other celebrities such as Magic Johnson announcing their HIV status is that now everyone has a smart phone is his or her pocket, there is instant access to information," Ayers told ABC News. "I hope that this will lead us to look for ways to prolong this effect."

Getting people who are HIV positive into treatment remains an issue for health care providers in the U.S. Approximately 1 out of every 8 people with HIV do not know they have it, according to the CDC. It can take years for people with HIV to be diagnosed since they do not develop symptoms immediately.

While the study focused on how people were looking for more information on HIV, a company that conducts at home testing, has seen an increase in HIV testing.

Ron Ticho, the senior Vice President at OraSure Technologies, which makes an FDA approved at home HIV test, said sales more than doubled the week following Charlie Sheen’s announcement and that they were up 38 percent in the 2015 fourth quarter as compared to the year before.

Dr. Barron Lerner, an internist and historian of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, has studied how famous patients can have a far-reaching impact on disease.

"It always helps to get people to think about something anew when there's a particular case," he told ABC News. "Over and over when a celeb comes forward on a disease…it’s an opportunity again for people who are interested in it to revisit it."

He said even though HIV and AIDS have been in the media for decades, after Charlie Sheen's announcement he had patients come in surprised that the actor could be infected.

"I had patients come in and asked me questions," said Lerner. "Some of them assume he must have used drugs or had unprotected sex with a man, I’m like you know that’s not necessarily the case at all."

Lerner said the study shows how helpful celebrities can draw attention to medical conditions.

Dr. Aaron Hawkins is a Psychiatry Resident from the University of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. He is currently a resident at the ABC news medical unit.

ABC News' Dr. Anand Venkatraman, a neurology resident at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a resident at the ABC News Medical Unit, contributed to this article.