Celebrities who question the safety of vaccines just won’t shut up. It seems like every week there’s another famous person spouting some anti-vaccine nonsense, from Jenny McCarthy to Kristin Cavalari to Donald Trump and now, Alicia Silverstone. The continuing spread of misinformation about vaccines by celebs is alarming. And because the power of celebrity is used to sell products and champion social causes, like it or not, what famous people say has influence. So will the pro-vaccine celebrities please stand up? And when they do, like Amanda Peet and Kim Kardashian have done, can the media make a bigger deal out of it?
We’re in the midst of a public health crisis spurred by parents who won’t vaccinate their kids. Diseases such as mumps and measles, once on the brink of being eradicated because of vaccination, are making a comeback. Public health experts are struggling with how to reach parents who are vaccine skeptics, and a recent study shows it may be impossible to change their minds via some of the communication methods used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We need antidotes to the current wave of anti-vaccination celebrity craziness.
Silverstone is currently peddling her book “The Kind Mama,” which features all sorts of wacky parenting advice. Though most of is -- such as raising a baby without using diapers -- is harmless to public health, her thoughts on vaccines are not. She writes that although “there has not been a conclusive study of the negative effects of … a rigorous one-size-fits-all, shoot-’em-up [vaccine] schedule, there is increasing anecdotal evidence [that some children were] ‘never the same’ after receiving a vaccine. And I personally have friends whose babies were drastically affected in this way.”
It is completely valid to ask why the media even give the likes of McCarthy or Silverstone a platform to dispense their opinions, given the harmful effects of their misinformation campaign. But ratings matter, and controversy gets ratings. Even at the peril of public health.
As the New York Times’ Frank Bruni says: “Whether the topic is autism or presidential politics, celebrity trumps authority and obviates erudition.”
So let’s just go with it. Let’s enlist celebrities who can counter the unfounded claims being made by anti-vaccination celebs and drown them out with reason.
I’ll readily admit that I’m dubious about our culture’s obsession with celebrity, especially in lieu of what should be our respect for scientists and doctors. But many people value what Beyoncé says and does more than what a scientist or doctor says. So imagine the power of a campaign in which Beyoncé took baby Blue Ivy to get her MMR or flu shot and invited the media to come along? What if, for every crazy commentary penned by the likes of McCarthy, a megawatt celebrity countered with a response grounded in science? If the power of celebrity suggestion can reach parents who are on the fence about vaccinating their kids, why shouldn’t we use this as another tool in the fight against the spread of bad information on vaccines?
Celebrities speaking out in favor of vaccines do not take the place of much-needed legislation that gets rid of religious exemptions allowing parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids, or laws that would mandate vaccination across the board. But adding a celebrity voice to a cause can be a powerful force. As the World Health Organization marks World Vaccination Week on April 24-30 and public health continues to be compromised by the anti-vaccination movement, we need all the help we can muster, even if it comes in the form of a Kardashian.
Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @susanrohwer.