This past November, actor Charlie Sheen revealed to the public that he is HIV positive. Depending on who you ask, this news was either shocking or not surprising in the slightest. Regardless of what reaction we may have had to the news of his diagnosis, it appears that the prominent Hollywood celebrity coming out as HIV positive has had a positive impact on HIV/AIDS awareness.
A recent study conducted by researchers at San Diego State University found that Sheen’s revelation resulted in a large spike in the number of HIV-related internet searches immediately following the news. Perhaps even more important was that a large portion of the content found through these searches was reputable, informative public health messaging. Charlie Sheen’s decision to disclose his HIV status quite literally was the catalyst for many of us to educate ourselves about the disease.
While it is encouraging to see so many of us interested in learning more about HIV in the wake of a celebrity making their diagnosis public, it does raise some concern about the current state of HIV public health information dissemination. Should it really take a world famous actor to bring attention to HIV?
To be sure, anything that motivates people to seek out valuable health information is a good thing. But the fact that the public’s interest could be so suddenly and dramatically sparked suggests that HIV-awareness was in a lull.
No doubt NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson’s disclosure of his HIV diagnosis in 1991 had an impact on HIV awareness; however this was in the early years of the epidemic when the disease was thought to afflict only gay men or injecting drug users. Making his diagnosis publicly known made it clear that the disease can affect anyone.
Since the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) in 1996, post-diagnosis life expectancies have increased dramatically. While the introduction of HAART may have been an immense medical and public health breakthrough, it may have contributed to a gradually decreasing sense of urgency about HIV among many Americans.
If you were to ask an average American, they might tell you that HIV was an epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, or that it only remains an epidemic on the African continent. It is true that the HIV epidemic in Africa has resulted in a far greater percentage of individuals living with an HIV diagnosis. More than one quarter of adults in Swaziland are HIV-positive. It is also true that the number of HIV-related deaths in the United States have been declining over the past decade. But what might be surprising to some is that in certain parts of the country, new HIV diagnosis are on the rise.
In Florida, for example, there was a nearly 25 percent increase in the number of new HIV diagnoses in 2015 as compared to the previous year, a trend that has been continuing for the past several years. Some public health officials believe this rise in cases is the result of the public’s waning concern towards HIV.
In the early years of the HIV epidemic, fear was an important driver for the public gaining knowledge about HIV and served as a motivator for strictly following safer sex practices. This was particularly true among gay men, whom now account for an overwhelming majority of new cases in the United States. The public’s image of HIV has shifted in the past two decades: once an image of a young man wasting away on a hospital bed, we now think of healthy celebrities like Magic Johnson and his million dollar smile doing sports broadcasts years into his diagnosis. What was once viewed as a certain death sentence, HIV is viewed more as a manageable sexually transmitted infection.
Until a vaccine or cure is found, HIV needs to remain visible as an ongoing public health threat, particularly among teenagers and young adults who grew up without seeing firsthand the devastation and panic the disease can cause. Whether it’s bus advertisements providing information on where to get tested, in-school educational campaigns, or televised public service announcements advocating for safer sex, HIV won’t go anywhere unless we all treat it like the monster that it is.
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