Doctors need celebrities to spread the vaccine message

Presidential 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.

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