Are celebrities the key to boosting vaccination rates?

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

June 20th, 2011

Gary Finnegan

‘Celebrities have been blamed for pedalling inaccurate information to the public about vaccines. Should pro-vaccine celebrities be mobilised to undo the damage? ’

Salma-hayekDoctors and public health authorities have been exasperated by Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine campaigns, prompting some to highlight what they see as her malign influence on public trust in immunisation.

With a sense of weary frustration, scientists have repeatedly tried to debunk messages spread by McCarthy and others, but the influence of well-known public figures dramatically outweighs that of health officials.

Earlier this year a survey showed that while most parents believe that their child’s doctor is the most reliable source of vaccination advice, 24% place “some faith” in what celebrities have to say about vaccine safety.

Trust in our doctors may be high but psychology experts believe we .

Fighting fire with fire?

So, is wheeling out pro-vaccine celebrities as an antidote to anti-vaccine actors simply fighting fire with fire or does it smack of hypocrisy and desperation.

Paul Offit, a doctor and high-profile vaccine advocate who helped develop the rotavirus vaccine, that conducting public debate on science through celebrity proxies is the wrong approach.

“It’s for the same reason that I don’t like people listening to McCarthy that I can’t say it’s great for people to listen to celebrities that agree with what doctors are saying. I’d prefer if people listened to their doctors – the vast majority of whom are strongly in favour of vaccination. In a better world I’d like to feel like we can appeal to reason but maybe I’m being an idealist!”

The rise of the pro-vaccine celebrity

For most celebrities, sticking their heads about the parapet in the name of science-based medicine is a thankless task: they risk alienating a segment of their audience in exchange for the occasional gratitude of mainstream medicine.

The reality is that the majority of parents – including actors and singers – vaccinate their children, but most prefer to take their place in the silent majority rather than explain their decision to others.

However, there are signs of change. Salma Hayek and Amanda Peet are among the Hollywood names who regularly speak up in favour of vaccination, while is fast becoming Defender-in-Chief of vaccines in the developing world.

Amanda Peet has been particularly forthright. She has tackled the issue head on, speaking of the damage done by Andrew Wakefield’s debunked theory linking vaccines to autistic spectrum disorders, and of how funding has been diverted away from researching the real causes of autism, as well as finding new vaccines.

Peet has even managed to make herself a hate figure among anti-vaccine groups by bluntly declaring: “Frankly, I feel that parents who don’t vaccinate their children are parasites.”

Ironically enough, she urges other parents to “ignore the stars, listen to the experts”. Despite what Paul Offit might hope, it seems the best way to encourage the general public to get their medical information from medics is to have a celebrity deliver the message.

Celebrities & vaccines

Amanda Peet: Vaccinate your baby, Every Child By Two

Selma Hayek: One Pack = One Vaccine

Jennifer Gardner: Faces of Influenza

Kerri Russell: Silence the Sounds of Pertussis

Marissa Jaret Winokur: The HPV Test

Have your say

Do you listen to celebrities’ views on health issues?

Should more stars speak out on vaccination?


  1. Jerri


    June 21st, 2011

    Celebrities are used because they already have a wide public recognition factor. They are, however, for the most part recognized because of roles they play in FICTIONAL stories or STAGED and/or edited appearances which have no relevance to any particular knowledge or expertise about health issues or vaccinations. The United States would do well, in my opinion, to BAN advertising on all drugs and vaccinations, making this question moot. There is a well researched article regarding vaccines at this web site: The medical profession would do well to allow an HONEST debate and fact-finding dialog to occur instead of trotting out “expert” professionals and researchers who are sponsored by vested interests to tell us their products are safe.

    • Gary Finnegan

      Gary Finnegan

      June 23rd, 2011

      Thanks Jerri,
      I take your point on celebrities, but who should be the main voices in the public debate on vaccines? You seem dismissive of celebrities but also sceptical about the motivation of experts. To whom would/should the public listen?