It may have been TMI for some, but Charlie Sheen's admission he was infected with HIV fueled a potentially lifesaving surge in curiosity about the AIDS virus, researchers reported Monday.
More people Googled terms such as "HIV" after Sheen's appearance on NBC's TODAY show than ever before, the team reported.
Such interest can only be good in a country where ignorance about HIV can be deadly, John Ayers of San Diego State University and colleagues said.
"While no one should be forced to reveal HIV status, Sheen's disclosure may benefit public health by helping many people learn more about HIV infection and prevention. More must be done to make this benefit larger and lasting," they wrote in in the Journal of the American Medical Association's JAMA Internal Medicine.
Sheen not only disclosed that he was infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS — he also said he was taking a drug cocktail to keep himself healthy and to protect his sexual partners from infection.
Studies have shown the approach does work, but researchers have been frustrated by an apparent lack of interest and education about the pills. HIV cannot be cured and there is no vaccine to prevent it — but medication can keep patients healthy for decades.
Sheen's former girlfriend, Amanda Bruce, also talked freely about how she used a once-a-day pill in a regimen called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, protect herself while she was in a relationship with Sheen.
Daley's team counted global English-language searches for the terms "HIV," "condoms," "HIV symptoms" and "HIV testing" from Nov. 17 to Dec. 8, 2015.
On the day Sheen appeared on TODAY, in Nov. 2015, Daley found a 265 percent increase in news reports mentioning HIV. That's after years of waning interest in the virus.
"Since 2004, news reports about HIV decreased from 67 stories per 1,000 to 12 stories per 1,000 in 2015," Daley's team wrote.
"Sheen's disclosure also corresponded with the greatest number of HIV-related Google searches ever recorded in the United States. About 2.75 million more searches than expected included the term HIV, and 1.25 million searches were directly relevant to public health outcomes because they included search terms for condoms, HIV symptoms, or HIV testing," they added.
"Just as with celebrities Rock Hudson's and Magic Johnson's disclosures of their HIV-positive status, Sheen's disclosure may be similarly reinvigorating awareness and prevention of HIV."
Public health officials and advocates should take advantage of such celebrity polishing of sometimes dreary health messages, the team said.
"Efforts to leverage the 'Charlie Sheen effect,' such as coordination of prevention-focused press with coverage related to Sheen as with celebrity Angelina Jolie's prophylactic mastectomy, may be prudent," they wrote. Jolie also made a stir when she revealed she was at extremely high risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and had her breasts and ovaries removed.
PrEP has been on the market since 2012 and has been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 2014. Yet a third of U.S. doctors don't even know about it, and hundreds of thousands of people at high risk don't, the CDC has found.
Only about a half of 1 percent of sexually active adults have a high risk of catching HIV. But that adds up to a lot of people — 1.2 million Americans at "substantial risk," CDC estimates.