Would you stop using sunscreen if Jennifer Lawrence told you that it was a toxic chemical and harmful to your health? You might. The power of celebrity is more powerful than you may think.
Celebrities have a unique power in our culture. With the advent of the Internet and social media, we are more informed, more connected and more confused about what health information is most valuable. We have tremendous access to medical information, but much of it is conflicting or not scientifically validated. Celebrities can play an important role in the dissemination of medical information and with so many sources of conflicting health advise, society is trusting of celebrities for guidance. A recent study in the British Medical Journal found several strong biological, psychological, and social bases for people’s adoration of celebrities and trust in their medical advice. When acting in the role as health advisors, celebrities often describe a genuine connection to the condition or cause they endorse, even when such a connection may not always exist. The “halo effect” describes how we perceive a celebrities’ success in their given industry extending into other areas and lending them an overall sense of trustworthiness. We listen to celebrities to find out what they are wearing, what kind of cars they drive, where they vacation and this mentality extends to health. Jennifer Aniston stays toned with yoga, Gwyneth Paltrow gives her children oil of oregano to ward off colds, and Jenny McCarthy believes that autism can be prevented by not vaccinating your child. Which of these celebrities is promoting sound health advice and which has the potential to harm you or your family?
Over the last decade, Jenny McCarthy, 1993’s October Playboy’s Playmate of the Month, has become the face and voice of the anti-vaccine movement. McCarthy has become a recognized public health advisor. McCarthy lacks any medical or scientific credentials. She speaks from the personal experience of her child being diagnosed with autism. McCarthy has persistently, loudly and without any scientific research validating her claims argued that vaccines cause autism. Vaccines are considered by the medical community to be one of the greatest advances of modern medicine responsible for preventing over 103 million cases of communicable childhood diseases since 1924. But McCarthy and other anti-vaccine advocates have complicated the success of vaccines with claims of pseudo-medicine and downright fear. In 1998, the medical journal The Lancet, published Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s faulty research on the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine causing autism in children. Wakefield’s study has since been retracted, and discredited. No other medical studies have shown a link between vaccines and mental disorders. Despite the scientific evidence, McCarthy has continued her anti-vaccine public health campaign. McCarthy is a model turned actress sharing her personal experiences, how many people would seriously listen to her health advice? In 2011, a University of Michigan study found that a quarter of parents (24%) placed some trust in information about vaccines provided by celebrities, like McCarthy.
A scientifically- validated 2013 study by The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that an aggressive vaccination schedule does not contribute to an increase in autism incidence. So if autism is not a risk of vaccination, what are the risks of not vaccinating your child? Childhood-diseases most of us have never seen or treated are on the rise. Pertussis, a bacterial respiratory infection commonly known as whooping cough was thought to be nearly eradicated in the 1980’s after the development of the Tdap vaccine. In 2010, the largest outbreak of pertussis since 1947 occurred in California affecting 9,120 people and leading to 10 deaths. A 2013 study in Pediatrics confirmed that the epidemic was due in part to parents opting out of vaccines for non-medical reasons. The study found that persons living in communities where a large number of people opted out of vaccination for personal, non-medical reasons were 2.5 times more likely to live in an area with a large number of pertussis cases. Measles, a highly contagious viral disease with dangerous complications is also on the rise. In 2008, 90% of all cases in the US were persons who had not been vaccinated with the MMR vaccine to prevent the disease.
McCarthy’s campaign against vaccines is certainly not the sole cause of the anti-vaccine movement. Parents choose not to vaccinate their children for medical, personal, or religious reasons that vary from state to state. But the role of celebrities in the media is certainly powerful and can open up medical debates without always presenting the best scientific knowledge. The role of celebrities should not be ignored or discredited. Scientists, physicians, charities and governments can benefit from the public’s relationship with celebrities to spread influential and meaningful health messages. Michael J Fox’s promotion of Parkinson’s disease and Christopher Reeves’ work for spinal cord injury have helped millions of people and raised awareness for important causes. I would love to see celebrities in partnerships with medical organizations opening the discussion of a wide range of chronic diseases. With 1 out of 2 Americans currently diagnosed with a chronic condition, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease or diabetes, our celebrities audience is the perfect target for some valuable health knowledge along with the Red Carpet highlights.