Behavior change is the ultimate goal of any public health campaign, but creating the right messaging to spark behavior change is hardly ever easy. In light of Charlie Sheen’s recent admission of his status as HIV positive, I started thinking about what affect this news might have on messages for safe sex. Though there are plenty of examples of celebrities using their fame as a platform to spread public health messages (think: Michael J. Fox and Parkinson’s Disease; Katie Couric and colon cancer), Charlie Sheen has attracted negative attention to himself over the past few years. Might this have any effect on the message he is trying to spread?

Many of campaigns related to sexually transmitted diseases have historically integrated a fear appeal, or, as it is more theoretically known, the Extended Parallel Process Model. In a nutshell, EPPM uses fear, in this case the contraction of HIV, to motivate health behavior changes in target populations. However, health communication campaigns do not automatically “scare people straight.” Using a fear appeal runs the risk of scaring people too much that they feel the danger is unavoidable, or the public recognizes the risk but does not feel they have the proper resources to take action. Charlie Sheen is not necessarily rolling out his own public health campaign, but his message does contain a huge fear appeal.

So, what does this mean for people hearing Sheen’s news? Will they consider Sheen’s known drug use and relations with sex workers and think “I don’t do that – this can’t happen to me”? Will the public recognize the threat of HIV and take measures to change their sexual behaviors? Fortunately, it’s looking like the latter: STDcheck.com, a leading online provider of private and affordable STD testing, reported a surge in test sales the day Charlie Sheen broke the news of his HIV positive status.

While it is great that people are taking steps to know their HIV status, health communicators know that this just one step in the behavior change pipeline. Sheen’s disclosure comes at a time when HIV is no longer a death sentence, but it is a great reminder to health communicators everywhere that the work is not yet done. Life with HIV is now much more manageable; however, it still has its burdens. I am interested to see what, if any, health campaigns arise promoting not only HIV and STD prevention, but safe HIV management and status disclosure to partners in light of Sheen’s admission.