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In a Surprise Move, Charlie Sheen May Have Actually Saved Lives

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist and writer specializing in sexual and reproductive health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham ...

The ‘Charlie Sheen effect’ is real & may have saved lives

Given the sheer amount of ridiculous news in the past 100 or so days, it almost seems appropriate to report that Charlie Sheen may in fact be responsible for saving some lives.

Let’s go back to a simpler time — November 2015 to be exact — when on an episode of Today, Sheen told Matt Lauer that he was HIV-positive. At that stage, he said that he had been living with HIV and on medication for four years and indicated that he felt the need to come forward because he was being blackmailed by sex workers who threatened to disclose his status.

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But what started as an attempt to control his own narrative has actually become the impetus for real-life positive effects. First we learned that after his announcement, Google searches for not just “HIV" but also searches containing the terms “condom[s],” “symptoms” and “testing” spiked significantly. Sure, raising awareness is always a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into public health gains or lives saved.

Today we learned that the impact of Sheen’s announcement may have done more than just make people panic-search HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. It also resulted in a big increase in sales of in-home HIV testing kits.

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An article published today in Prevention Science says that sales of in-home HIV test kit OraQuick rose 95 percent the week of Sheen’s disclosure and remained elevated for the following four weeks. This translated into 8,225 more sales of the kit than expected around his announcement — surpassing the numbers from World AIDS Day by a factor of seven.

What the researchers refer to as the “Charlie Sheen effect” is an important moment in public health, and they say that in the future, internet searches can be used to pinpoint opportunities for encouraging prevention behaviors like HIV testing.

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