Monday, September 26, 2011

Celebrities and their Health Causes: What Happens When They Do More Harm Than Good?

Often on this blog I have spoken about the role of celebrities as the spokesperson or "champion" for various public health issues. Many celebrity names are synonymous with particular health causes (Katie Couric- Colon Cancer; Michael J. Fox- Parkinson's Disease; Lance Armstrong- Testicular Cancer; to name a few).

Over the past few weeks, several stories have emerged which beg the question, "what happens if celebrities do more harm than good?" Those in the public eye have such a broad and extensive platform to communicate with the public...what if they disseminate erroneous information or even worse- cause a panic?

The week of September 12 was quite busy! In the Republican Presidential Debate (in the context of discussing mandated HPV vaccines for children), Rep. Michelle Bachmann claimed that the HPV (Human Papillomavirus) vaccine is linked to mental retardation. To support her claims, Bachmann repeatedly told the story of being approached by a woman whose daughter suffered mental retardation after taking the vaccine. As those of us in science well know, one self-reported story does not equal a true incident. Even if true, one incident does not equal a trend or an epidemic. This story has been quickly picked up by scientists who are even offering money if it is proven true.

This same week, Dr. Mehmet Oz of the Dr. Oz Show (you may remember him from numerous appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show), claimed that apple juice contains unsafe levels of arsenic. These claims followed research conducted by the Show which had a laboratory examine three dozen samples from five different brands across the United States. The samples were compared to the limits of arsenic set for drinking water by the EPA. Since the claims, many scientists have spoken out regarding concerns about the study's protocols and conclusions (for example, not differentiating between organic and inorganic types of arsenic). Many were concerned about the widespread panic caused by these claims and likened it to shouting "fire" in a crowded theater.

Of course, this is not the first time celebrities have caused a scandal following potentially false and dangerous claims. Jenny McCarthy has dedicated her life to proving the cause between childhood vaccines and autism. Shortly after Brooke Shields released her book, "Down Came The Rain", which chronicled her battle with postpartum depression- actor Tom Cruise (a Scientologist) publicly criticized her for taking antidepressant medication.

So what happens when these celebrities cause more harm than good? What happens when their claims are misguided, misinformed, and/or not based on evidence or science? The answer: they can have huge and far-reaching public health consequences. For example, as we begin to see illnesses like measles reappear- we have to wonder- "Is this the Jenny McCarthy effect?"


  1. When celebrities cause more harm than good, this can definitely be problematic for those individuals who regard those celebrities highly. This is why I always listen to both sides of the debate before I make an informed decision or opinion.

  2. Leah, I love your blog. You touch on subjects in such a timely manner. I feel I am caught in a tug-of-war sometimes with things like this. So many people believe what they hear, read, listen to through media the second the hear, read, see it without doubt. Yet, when we try to teach the public using accurate information and science we - public health professionals and scientists - are questioned or ignored. What I find especially cumbersome about this phenomena is that it is usually those that most need accurate & easy to understand information who run with misleading information. It takes, seemingly, a million times the effort to debunk unfounded "health" claims.

    Thank you for asking these questions, Leah!

  3. Lilia & Beth-
    Thanks so much for your comments and thanks for reading Pop Health!