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Celebrities and Diseases: How Popular Figures Affect Health Issues

Celebrities have a powerful influence on many aspects of culture, from music tastes and fashion trends to consumption of popular culture and even health. In recent years, several celebrities have chosen to go candid about the diseases they are battling, in hopes of bringing about a public campaign to educate people about the illness and hopefully find a cure for the disease, or at least contribute to research to mitigate it.Avril Lavigne, Wango Tango 2013

The latest celebrity to bring health issues to the public eye is Avril Lavigne, America’s favorite pop rock artist, recently revealed that she has been suffering from Lyme disease for several months. Lyme disease, a disease that public health officials first saw in cases of rheumatoid arthritis near Lyme, Connecticut, is the most common tick-borne disease in North America and Europe. It is also one of the fastest-growing infectious diseases in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates that about 300,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S. alone.

Unfortunately, as a matter of public health, not enough attention is paid to the disease. In Massachusetts, we spend $10 million on mosquito control, but only $60,000 on tick-borne diseases. Ms. Lavigne hopes to bring increased awareness to Lyme disease, by educating people about diagnosis and symptoms, as well as raising money for an eventual cure or better treatment.

In an interview with Billboard magazine, she says, “I feel like I have a responsibility – I just can’t sit on my ass and do nothing. I need to talk about Lyme disease, because it’s real, it’s out there, it was a simple bug bite and can happen to anybody. People need to know about it, because it’s not talked about that much and a lot of the information that’s out there is inaccurate.”

Because Lyme disease is an underfunded and controversial disease, and because some members of the medical community discount the use of long-course antibiotics, there is much work to be done to combat this disease. Fortunately, Avril Lavigne is an influential voice that can affect millions of people who are affected with this disease, as well as help educate people about preventative measures. With 18.6 million Twitter followers and about 53 million Facebook followers, she has many people who would listen to her about Lyme disease, and develop a plan of action to defeat the disease.

However, in a more high-profile fashion, movie star and humanitarian Angelina Jolie has captured our attention for important reasons: she has brought increased awareness to breast and ovarian cancer. In 2013, Angelina Jolie shocked many around the world when she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, titled “My Medical Choice”, saying she had a double mastectomy as a preventative measure against breast cancer. In the op-ed, she wrote that after undergoing genetic testing, her doctors told her she had an 87% risk of breast cancer and a 50% risk of ovarian cancer, partially due to the fact she carries a “faulty” gene, BRCA1, which dramatically increases her chances of getting both breast and ovarian cancer.

Angelina_Jolie_Global_Summit_2014Ms. Jolie has been considered a sex symbol for most of her adult career, and her actions of undergoing the surgery and being extensively candid about her process with cancer prove that she wants people to take charge of the medical issues of their lives. In two of the most striking sentences of the op-ed, she writes, “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”

Millions of people reacted positively to her story, and her candidness about her health incurred the “Angelina Jolie effect”, in which there was an increase in demand for genetic testing for women worldwide. Just one month ago, Ms. Jolie wrote another op-ed for the New York Times, in which she announced that she chose to have her ovaries surgically removed to prevent ovarian cancer, also known as the “silent killer.” Ovarian cancer is called “the silent killer” because in many cases, there are no obvious symptoms until the disease has reached an advanced stage.

Due to her candor, superstardom, and respect from many around the world, Ms. Jolie has helped de-stigmatize genetic testing, and many people who have done genetic testing in the past two years have cited Jolie as an influence. Ms. Jolie does acknowledge there are significant costs associated with medical testing, but it appears that her op-eds about breast and ovarian cancer prove medical treatment and research for these cancers is headed in the right direction.

Finally, an example of a long-term success for a celebrity executing a public campaign to combat a devastating disease is former Lakers player, businessman and philanthropist Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr. In November 1991, at a televised news conference at the Forum in Inglewood, California, he announced he had tested positive for HIV, a lentivirus (type of retrovirus) that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

At the news conference, he said, “Here I am saying that it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson. I just want to say that I’m going to miss playing, and I will now become a spokesperson for the HIV virus.”Magic_Johnson_2007

Fortunately, Mr. Johnson still got to play in the NBA, although intermittingly. He played in the 1992 Summer Olympics, was a coach for the Lakers, and joined the Lakers as a player for one last season in 1995. Through his efforts as a spokesman for HIV, many lauded him for his bravery, and he crushed the stereotype of HIV as a “gay disease.” Because of Mr. Johnson being an advocate for HIV/AIDs prevention and safe sex, he has saved millions of lives, and caused a dramatic drop in HIV infections nationwide, though the number of infections has leveled off in recent years.

Due to Johnson’s influence, many people have sought medical treatment for and prevention from HIV/AIDS in many counseling and testing centers around the country, and worldwide. Now in his early 50s, Mr. Johnson continues to inspire many as an embodiment of a successful fight against a terrible disease.

Many diseases go for years without widespread awareness about treatment and prevention. Fortunately, celebrities such as Avril Lavigne, Angelina Jolie, Magic Johnson and many more have opened up in recent years about the awful diseases that harm millions of people. While it is hard to find a cure for these diseases, as well as other diseases like heart disease and ALS, having a popular figure urge others to take action about these diseases is a good step forward.

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