Selena Gomez’s Impact on Lupus Awareness

About six months ago, when Brett Adelman and I first launched Karate Health and focused on helping people battling lupus, very few of our peers knew much about the disease. If we got any response, it was something like: “Wait. Lupus? That’s the disease on House right? The disease that it never ends up being, like..isn’t it never lupus?” Now a days, we almost always get a response and it goes a little like “Wait, is that the disease Selena Gomez has?” We have seen the increase in lupus awareness first hand, just in the the last six months. Being a data nerd, I wanted to be able to quantify it. Was Selena Gomez really having a meaninful impact on lupus awareness? TL:DR; Oh yeah.

Let’s start easy and look at Google Trends:

Google trends is a simple way to measure how much a term is being searched over time. It is measured in relatively. Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term.

Below is the google trend chart for lupus. You will notice two large spikes: The first is during the week of October 8th, 2015 and the second is during the week of August 31st, 2016. So what happened during those days? What caused the google search popularity of lupus to go up a little over 4x? Selena Gomez.

Chart displaying the google search popularity over time for lupus

Looking at the ABC News archive its easy to see all the lupus news by date. We can go back to October 8th, 2015 and clearly see that is the date that Selena confirmed she had lupus and on August 31st, 2016 she cancelled her tour due to the disease.

So we can see that major news stories about Selena’s lupus causes an immediate spike in search popularity. But then the popularity goes back to about average (although the most recent spike appears to have a more lasting impact, but only time will tell). Okay, I am convinced that a major news story about Selena gets people Googling lupus, but does that really impact awareness?

So people are Googling lupus, but does that mean they are learning about lupus? Let’s look at Wikipedia Data

Wikipedia isn’t the first thing you see when you Google lupus (unlike it is for other things) but people still rely on it to learn about the disease. The nice thing about Wikipedia is that the page views data is public. Below is a chart that shows the number of page views of the lupus wikipedia page since June 2015. Interestingly enough, you see major spikes, on the same dates as the google popularity chart, at about 4x again.

It looks like news stories about Selena don’t just get people Googling, it gets people learning about lupus, about 4 times more than on average. I might even venture to say that almost 100,000 Wikipedia views on lupus could be attributed to Selena Gomez.

Being a data nerd, I want to dig a little further and compare the data to something. Data is always most interesting when its being used relative to other data. So let’s compare the Selena’s impact on lupus awareness to disease awareness campaigns, but which one?

When you think of disease awareness campaigns, you have to think about the work being done to bring increased awareness to breast cancer. This is a cause near and dear to my heart. There are some major differences. Breast cancer is not a chronic disease like lupus. There will be 20,000 new cases of lupus in the US next year, while there will be over 250,000 new cases of breast cancer, but there are 1.5 million Americans currently battling lupus. Acknowledging these differences, let’s go ahead and compare lupus with breast cancer anyway.

Let’s go back to Google Trends but this time add in breast cancer

Not surprisingly, most weeks breast cancer is a more popular search term than lupus, except for our Selena Gomez weeks. You also immediately notice a seasonal spike in early October for the breast cancer search popularity, which is driven by Breast Cancer Awareness month. What jumps out at me is the magnitude of those spikes. The Selena Gomez spikes are larger than the Breast Cancer Awareness month spikes. The more I think about it, the more crazy that seems. Pink is everywhere from football cleats to tv ads in October.

Chart comparing the google search popularity of the terms lupus and breast cancer over time

When we go back and add Wikipedia page views for breast cancer to the lupus Wikipedia page view chart, we notice that there are more lupus views than breast cancer. Also, not surprising, considering cancer is more ubiquitous than lupus. But you do not see a lot of movement in the breast cancer Wikipedia views.

Chart comparing Wikipedia Page Views for breast cancer and lupus

Well, I should say that you do not see a lot of movement, relative to lupus. That chart actually makes it pretty challegning to see anything about the breast cancer wikipedia pages views.

Chart comparing google search popularity to wikipedia page views for breast cancer

That’s better. Now its more clear that there is some relationship between the search popularity and Wikipedia page views. Let’s put it all together in my favorite type of chart: A nice scatter plot.

Each dot represents a week of data, from the week of 6/28/2015 to 11/13/2016. While I wouldn’t build a statistical model on the correlation, there is defiantely a relationship that can be seen visually and easily explained.

Pretty Charts, but so what?

In our lupus community, we heard mixed feelings about Selena’s lupus being in the news. On one side, people were frustrated that we only talk about lupus in the context of celebrity gossip. On the other side, people were happy that lupus was getting attention and that Selena is being open about the disease. For many people with lupus, it can be hard to explain the true nature of the disease to friends and family. Having an advocate for the disease as well known as Selena can be valuable.

Lupus is a awful disease that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. The more I learn about the disease and the closer I become to our community, the more I am saddened by the lack of research into the disease. To me it comes down to funding and money. The Susan G. Komen foundation has ~$280 million dollars in income, but places like Lupus Foundation of America and the Lupus Research Alliance have closer to $20 million each. Awareness drives donations. Donations drive research. Research drives cures and treatments. There is no question to me that Selena Gomez has had a measurable and positive impact on lupus awareness, I just hope it translates to donations and research into the disease.