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New research suggests high profile celebrity illnesses can be good for public health

As Hollywood actor Michael Douglas hits the news headlines as the latest celebrity to reveal his cancer diagnosis, new research by the University of Warwick suggests the media coverage of celebrity illnesses can have benefits for public health.

A team of researchers from Warwick Medical School have explored how the volume of news articles covering a high-profile celebrity illness can influence public behaviour.

In an article published in the Journal of Public Health, the researchers examined the case of UK television celebrity Jade Goody, who died from cervical cancer in March 2009. They investigated the impact of her illness on media coverage of cervical cancer prevention, health information seeking behaviour and the impact on cervical screening figures.

The analysis of NHS Cervical Screening Programme figures showed that 2009 had the first annual increase in screening uptake since 2002, reversing a downward trend, and there was a rise of around 100,000 extra screenings across the UK. Screening coverage rose from 77.85% in 25-64 year old age group in 07/08 to 78.94% in 08/09.

One of the report’s authors David Metcalfe said: “Although this percentage increase in screening figures appears to be quite modest, millions of screenings take place so we are actually looking at an increase of around 100,000 screenings. The reversal of the downward trend is the most significant element as figures had been steadily falling since 2002. Our study suggests that Jade Goody’s diagnosis and death led to an increase in the number of people looking for information about cervical cancer and screening.”

As part of the study, newspaper coverage was analysed to assess the proportion of articles providing public health information from the time of Jade Goody’s diagnosis in August 2008 to the ten week period following her death in March 2009. They found 1,203 stories in national newspapers covering the Jade Goody cancer story for the time period studied. However, of these only 9.6% contained a public health message, with the majority highlighting the value of cervical screening. Far fewer articles gave advice on other preventative measures such as vaccination against the Human Papilloma Virus, reducing the number of sexual partners, or using condoms.

Fellow author Dr John Powell said: “The upturn in screening figures does suggest a role for the media in influencing public health behaviour. However, our study showed that newspapers often neglect health promotion messages when reporting details of a celebrity illness. This is a missed opportunity. Health promoters need to act promptly when a particular condition hits the news to maximise public health opportunities.”

Notes to editors

The article has been published in the Journal of Public Health,Media coverage and public reaction to a celebrity cancer diagnosis’ doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdq052

For more information or to speak to one of the researchers, please contact Kelly Parkes-Harrison, Communications Manager, University of Warwick,, 07824 540863, 02476 150483/574255.