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'Charlie Sheen Effect' nearly doubled HIV test sales after his announcement, study finds

Gilbert Carrasquillo/iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Charlie Sheen's 2015 announcement that he had been diagnosed with HIV years earlier seems to have sparked higher interest in testing for the virus, according to a study released on
Thursday.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) leads to the HIV infection that causes AIDS, which now affects 1.2 million Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sheen's announcement, which made national headlines, renewed attention about the dangers of HIV and AIDS at the time.

According to the study update, the "Charlie Sheen Effect" had a big impact on HIV testing in the U.S., with sales of at-home testing nearly doubling the week of the actor's announcement.

Researchers from the University of Southern California and the University of California San Diego, among other institutions, published their findingson Thursday in the Prevention Science medical
journal. The study was a follow up to a one published last year that documented a huge surge in people searching for information on HIV and AIDS.

"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,"
study coauthor Eric Leas, a research associate in the SDSU-UCSD joint doctoral program in public health, said in statement today.

The researchers looked at weekly sales data over a two-year period, from April 12, 2014 to April 16, 2016, of OraQuick rapid in-home HIV tests -- the only test of this type available in the U.S.
They found that the week after Charlie Sheen announced on the "Today Show" that he was HIV positive, in November 2015, there was a 95 percent increase in OraQuick HIV test sales.

The HIV test sales continued to be above normal over the next four weeks, fluctuating from approximately 20 percent above normal to 60 percent above normal.

Surprisingly, researchers found that these numbers far surpassed the sales uptick after World Aids Day. Despite widespread attention to encourage people to get tested or be HIV aware through the
World AIDS Day campaign, they found sales increased just 31 percent above normal but that rates returned the next week.

HIV testing is key to combating the sexually-transmitted virus since symptoms often do not appear for years after infection. An estimated 1.2 million people in the U.S. have HIV, but 1 in 8
infected people are not aware they have the virus, according to the CDC.

John Ayers,a behavioral scientist at San Diego State University in California, said that the study could help public health officials better engage with people.

"We can make public health more connected to the public it serves," Ayers told ABC News. According to him, the current public health system is top-down, and informational messages come mainly from
experts. "We forgot to listen to the public, and this is what the public is engaging on."

Ayers and his team also looked at how search terms on Google trends were associated with increased sales and found they could predict sales within a somewhat small margin of error.

“We can discover when events are occurring, measure their impact and work to grow their impact," he said. "That’s what public health can become.”

The case shows it is key for public health officials to take advantage of these public announcements, according to Dr. Barron Lerner, professor of medicine and population health at NYU Langone
Medical Center.

"People look down at celebrities and feel that the information that's being generated is not useful to regular people," Lenrer said. "But it reminds us that regardless of who the person is, it will
at least generate interest."

Ayers had a similar take-away.

"It’s an empowering message: the truth is that you can make a difference by just speaking out on something," he said. "We all hear talk is cheap, that’s not true.”

Lerner said that Sheen talking about his high-risk sexual practices may have also helped educate people about actual risks surrounding HIV, which is primarily spread through sexual contact and
intravenous drug use. Additionally, he said more people getting tested for HIV is "a good thing, regardless of who he is."

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