Exposing HIV to the Public: The effects of Charlie Sheen going public with his HIV diagnosis*

Late last year, the actor Charlie Sheen went on the nationally broadcasted NBC morning show, TODAY, to reveal that he was HIV-positive. According to Sheen, he was being blackmailed by a sex worker who discovered his medication bottles and wanted to set the record straight and to be set free from an unpleasant situation. Sheen ended the interview hoping by revealing his status more people would open up and reveal their status.

While the interview is full of judgments and gotcha journalism, Sheen may have done some good in generating searches for topics relating to HIV.

In a just published research letter in the JAMA: Internal Medicine, researchers tracked the daily number of articles and searches on several key terms around HIV (condoms, testing, symptoms) from 2004 to 2015 by using Bloomberg Terminal and Google Trends.

Their first finding laid out clearly HIV as a media topic had been decreasing 82% in an eleven-year span as a search and news topic. This makes sense in that during this time HIV incidence rates are falling, at least for most groups, and people are living longer.

When Sheen did his interview on November 17th there was a 265% upward spike in number of articles and searches on the same keywords making it one of the highest spikes in HIV media exposure in nearly a decade.

Over one million searches were done on Google that directly related on HIV health topics such as condoms and symptoms during the first 48 hours after Sheen’s interview.

This overwhelming level of engagement with HIV suggests that proper HIV education is once more needed in America and that Sheen did a good job in bringing awareness to the disease once again.

When celebrities go public with their fights with illness, there is a flurry of interest in the disease at hand.

This is not without precedent. When both Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson revealed their statuses, in 1985 and 1991 respectively, mainstream media perked up their reporting on the disease, because it altered public perception of the diagnosis.

When Angelina Jolie went public with her decision to get a double mastectomy because of the breast cancer risk associated with her genetics, the national media picked up coverage on the disorder.

I argue that in Charlie Sheen’s case, though, is something slightly different than what traditionally happens in the media so far.

HIV is not really talked about outside the main risk groups, nor is testing outreach targeted towards the communities least at risk. Thus, when someone that does not fit the traditional narrative of HIV, read “gay”, the result is more concerning to the population at hand.

Sheen upset this reality and produced an “Oh shit!” moment for those outside of the traditional risk groups. Sheen amplified the message that people need to get tested regularly, have safer sex, and if injecting drugs, use clean and unused needles.

When celebrities go against the grain of normal expectations, unlike Jolie, who, as a woman, is supposedly more at risk for breast cancer, it generates more traffic. Breast cancer has a whole month and countless charities to support it, but HIV does not have broad media appeal.


But should people listen to Charlie Sheen about HIV? That is a more complicated question.

Sheen has gone on air and said that he sought out a cure in Mexico contrary to all medical evidence that a cure is currently unavailable in all forms of therapy.

Sheen has now become head HIV advocate for the media, a media hungry for any type of sensational flourishes to a man that tweeted his #winning descent, and what is more sensational than a cure to HIV?

This begs the question, should we listen to our celebrities when it comes to health issue? While Jolie was considered noble and brave coming out about her mastectomy and became an advocate, Sheen is a bit of an interesting case because he has not been the model patient that HIV groups were hoping for.

Julia Belluz, of Vox, believes that despite Sheen imperfections, the public health establishment should use him to generate more exposure.

Personally, that does not sit well with HIV activists or me. Ms. Belluz conveniently skips over the fact that Sheen worked with a physician that claimed to find a cure, which did nothing but to increase his viral load. Sheen knows he can make money and renew exposure of his brand by shilling these stories to Dr. Oz.

HIV is a very socially misunderstood disease and to add imperfect information to the table can create a stigma that is hard to dispel. Let’s face it, some people think that depression is so simple that smiling more, or my personal favorite, just be happy, when in reality it really says that depression is fake or just sadness.

If Sheen wanted to make a difference or make the argument that public health should use him as a resource, he certainly hasn’t shown to be responsible with disseminating the proper medical line.

Yes, it is fantastic that Sheen brought to long overdue light to the continuing fight against HIV, but when one fails to provide the right information, it becomes a questionable endeavor.

Exposure can open up the conversation, but as the conversation continues, the content of the exposure must be critiqued to provide for the realities that the affect everyday people. Not all trans people feel the exposure of trans people in the media has been reflexive of the kinds of issues that celebrities can just bypass with glamor, money, and a promise of a paycheck for each story produced.

When celebrities expose various attributes, like having a certain illness, about themselves in the media, they effectively shine a light on their issue, but then step into that light.

*Previously published on Medium.

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