Do celebrities do more harm than good when pushing health issues?

Actress Jenny McCarthy (Matt Sayles, AP)

In one of the more questionable aspects of being a health reporter, I frequently report on diseases and health conditions that transform into hot news stories simply because they’re linked to a celebrity diagnosis. Has multiple sclerosis become more of a pressing health concern since we learned that Jack Osbourne has it? Does Michael J. Fox represent the typical face of Parkinson’s disease?

The answer to both these questions is probably not, but both of these celebrities have brought much needed attention—and donations for research —to diseases that afflict thousands of Americans.

On the flip side, some celebrities have been criticized widely for controversial health issues they’ve embraced: Actress Jenny McCarthy’s campaign against the increase in childhood vaccinations—which she blames on her son’s autism—may have contributed to a decline in immunization rates in some states, public health experts contend, and a recent resurgence of whooping cough.

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And breast cancer survivor Suzanne Somers raised quite a few eyebrows in the medical community by promoting the use of “natural” estrogen supplements to slow aging and prevent a recurrence of her disease. Since the hormone estrogen is thought to feed the majority of breast cancers, patients with these kinds of cancers are routinely treated with drugs to block estrogen.

Somers told me in a previous interview that her doctor had warned her she could die from taking estrogen and avoiding traditional anti-estrogen drugs but that she felt that her choices were “the best shot” she had at survival.

So, do celebrity-centered health campaigns yield a net benefit or net risk to our health? That’s a tough call to make, and two public health experts took opposing sides on the debate in opinion papers published in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal.

Simon Chapman, a public health professor at the University of Sidney in Australia, argued that critics of celebrity involvement in health issues “hone in on celebrity endorsement of flaky complementary medicine or quack diets...but they are silent about the many examples of celebrity engagement that have massively amplified becalmed news coverage about important neglected problems.”

Geof Rayner, an honorary research fellow at Britain’s City University London, disagreed that celebrity campaigns delivered long term gains for public health “for the logical reason,” he wrote, “that celebrity status is fleeting.” While acknowledging that celebrities can provide a short-term boost to issues— like TV chef Jamie Oliver’s campaign to improve school lunches—they “tread a cautious path of support because of the risk that the celebrity becomes the story, not the campaign.”

Unfortunately, researchers haven’t come up with a mathematical model to measure the net effect of star power on various health causes. That could prove to be impossible given that those in the medical community don’t always agree on when celebrities are doing more harm than good for a cause.

Sports stars like Gus Williams, a former basketball player for the Seattle SuperSonics, and former NFL football linebacker Cornelius Bennett are both involved in a current campaign urging all men to have prostate cancer screening even though a panel of experts recently recommended against routine screening since it often detects cancers that would never become life-threatening. Most medical groups recommend that men make an informed decision about the risks and benefits after speaking to their doctor.

Of course, urologists who treat prostate cancer—and who still believe in routine PSA testing for men over 50—would consider the celebrity campaign to be a definite net gain.