Doctors need celebrities to spread the vaccine message

Doctors need celebrities to spread the vaccine messagePresidential candidate Michele Bachmann has been in the health care headlines recently, saying the HPV vaccine was dangerous.

Although doctors and other health experts, along with editorials in major newspapers, rebutted her claims immediately, they didn’t stand a chance.

The damage was already done.

A piece from the New York Times explores the power both celebrities and politicians have when it comes to health claims.

Vaccine scares in the media always have a lasting impact, no matter how wrong they are:

Historically, Dr. Willoughby said, vaccine scares have caused vaccination rates to drop for three or four years, and have led to outbreaks of diseases that had previously been under control, like measles and whooping cough. Measles cases in the United States reached a 15-year high last spring, with more than 100 cases, most in people who had never been vaccinated.

Although Ms. Bachmann has since somewhat backtracked, by saying “she was not a doctor or a scientist,” nothing less than a specific, public retraction of her statement can begin to undue the damage.

Health professionals often lament the false claims of politicians and celebrities. Paul Offit, a physician who speaks out against the anti-vaccine movement, says it best: “It’s not hard to scare people. But it’s extremely difficult to unscare them.”

Doctors are playing from behind, both with their job of “unscaring” people and combating the celebrity-laden anti-vaccine movement. We need to get more politicians and celebrities onto the side of evidence-based medicine in order to reframe the vaccine debate.

As Ms. Bachmann has shown, they can do more than a thousand doctors to make a message resonate.

 is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of, also on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • Anonymous

    The problem is finding an antidote to the damage done by misinformed celebrities who express inaccurate opinions about the safety of vaccination or other medical treatments.  The public remembers the story being told, whether it is the child whose behavior changed dramatically after vaccination, or the timing of a seizure and fever, even if there is no evidence of a causal linkage.  It is the anecdote that sticks in the memory and can’t be undone.

    Effective prevention anecdotes simply don’t exist in our modern storytelling arsenal.  We need to find compelling stories to tell patients about all the individuals who have stayed healthy because of their immunizations, but a nonevent (no polio, no congenital rubella, no tetanus, no smallpox) simply doesn’t make headlines.

    Evidence based medical decision making must be made even more accessible to the public–not just bars and graphs with the latest disease incidence–but a true story that makes it personal and unforgettable.  Over thirty years of primary care practice, I’ve accumulated quite a few and pull them out when I need them.

    Emily Gibson M.D.

  • Kansas PCMH

    Eloquently stated…It’s truly what people remember that makes the critical difference in their attitudes, opinions, and ultimately behavior.  I would challenge every health care provider reading this to share compelling stories of patients that have remained healthy due to proactive and preventative health care.

  • Anonymous

    If someone is making medical decisions based on hearsay about a non-existent side effect reported by a probably imaginary “some woman,” they’re living in a realm where reason, logic, and evidence have no influence. Don’t waste your time.

  • Craig Koniver

    But the very reality remains: vaccines are not for every child and adult. The issue isn’t whether vaccines work and are safe, the issue is how they are given and who gets to make that decision. Where I practice here in Charleston, SC, I am the only MD who is open to alternative vaccination schedules and even discussing these issues. Certainly generic advice from both sides of the issue are not helpful: “all vaccines are good for everyone” is just as harmful as “no vaccines should be allowed”. There is a middle ground and it is a parent’s decision. Not being open to this discussion is what is damaging. Certainly vaccines have done wonders on the public health front to reduce disease transmission, but there are countless children who have not tolerated vaccines as well. Why are doctors afraid to discuss this?

    • Sabinal

      because they are afraid of another “Wakefield Impact” as I call it: mind I am not in the medical field at all (just a frequent patient and I’m just guessing) but I imagine they are afraid that patients will do exactly what this article talks about and avoid vaccinations altogether rather than changing schedules or talk about different vaccine formulas that can be taken (are there any)? 

  • Sabinal

    people just need to be grown ups and realize that vaccinations keep us well and alive. No politician will persuade me otherwise.

    Also, while Bachmann said was not true, I believe there are people more apt to criticize her more because of her being a Republican than what she actually said. Let us never forget that this anti-vaccination trend has been here since the 90s with some folks of all political stripes and we *still* have to fight people to let their kids take their TDAP shots. Don’t forget Dr. Wakefield and the MMR/autism/Lancet controversy

    • Craig Koniver

      I respectfully disagree with your statement: “people just need to be grown ups and realize that vaccinations keep us well and alive”

      I think we as humans are healthy and while eating good foods, thinking positive thoughts and exercising consistently are ways for us to improve, our health, vaccine by no means keep us well and alive. Vaccines work on our immune systems, so it has to be that our immune systems are doing the work, not the vaccines. This is goes to the heart of the debate–why do we neglect the ability of our bodies to be strong and healthy and at baseline consider ourselves to “need” anything like vaccines? Food for thought…

  • Natasha Burgert

    The problem is deeper. Vaccine decisions are ultimately based upon trust. Could the answer be that the essence of the physician-patient relationship needs a long-overdue change? I would rather spend my resources investing in a worthwhile patient relationship than on Hollywood lights. If the game simply becomes “who believes Jenny” vs. “Who believes Amanda,”I don’t want to play. 

  • Stephanie Chan

    Thanks, Kevin, for your thoughtful response to Bachmann’s misinformation.  She should be ashamed of herself for promoting a lie about this life-saving vaccine.  Read my analysis of the HPV vaccine for girls on  (I may not be a celebrity, but I am a hospitalist with 3 kids and a special interest in evidence-based medicine.)

  • Chris Hearne

    I am in my last term of nursing school and I’m interested in going into public / community health, so this topic is very relevant to me. I did a flu clinic at the hospital recently and we had a number of people come in expressing wariness about whether the flu vaccine can give you the flu. The worst part about this is that many of these people were health professionals, including one neurologist (!). 

Most Popular