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Celebs leading the public's health astray? Jan. 31, 2011
Written by: MARILYN LINTON, Special to QMI Agency

Jenny McCarthy and Dr. Jerry Kartzinel discuss their controversial views on autism and their new book "Healing and Preventing Autism" on ABC's "Good Morning America." (WENN.com photo)

They set style trends and we devour the latest about their movies, clothes, dates and pregnancies. But should celebrities have the spotlight when it comes to talking about health? More and more of them are promoting theories or cures that make no scientific sense and that can hurt millions of consumers.

Start with Jenny McCarthy, whose soapboxes have included Oprah's TV show where she talked about a supposed link between vaccines and autism in children. Her anti-vaccination campaign convinced many parents not to vaccinate their children. Now there's an anti-Jenny website, www.stopjenny.com, where there is a plea for parents to become better informed about the dubious link between vaccines and autism.

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"Ms. McCarthy has no educational background, and no license to give any type of medical advice on any medically related topic to other parents," says the website's organizers, who consist of concerned parents and scientists.

The actress, a former Playboy Playmate, surfed on a wave of misinformation that was fuelled by a British study which linked the MMR (the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine traditionally given to children) to autism: The British author of that 1998 study, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, was last month banned from practising medicine in the U.K. and his original study, published in The Lancet medical journal, was discredited.

Oprah has launched the career of the beloved Dr. Oz, a legitimate doctor. But in 2009, when she told millions of viewers and readers about her own decision to stop thyroid treatment, The Queen of Talk overstepped the line; she may have convinced some of her fans who have struggled with thyroid problems to stop medication like she did instead of listening to their own doctors.

Oprah blamed her weight gain on her wacky thyroid, took a rest cure and stopped her medication. But thyroid sufferers shouldn't listen to her: We don't know what her original diagnosis was and thyroid disease is a lifelong health issue that requires careful management, including the monitoring of thyroid hormones in the blood.

Actress Suzanne Somers was recently in Toronto talking about bioidentical hormones which she claims can counter aging and menopausal symptoms. A firm believer in alternative medicine, she also told CBC's Jian Ghomeshi that she turned down chemo for her breast cancer. Her interview prompted Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC radio's White Coat, Black Art to blog that he is concerned "that people (might) take her personal story of survival and apply it to themselves." Don't take her ideas as medical advice, he says.

The View's Elizabeth Hasselbeck says that doctors failed to diagnose her celiac disease which she then diagnosed herself. Riding high on the current obsession with gluten-free diets, her website and book claim that such a diet results in increased energy, lower cholesterol, weight loss, and the control of attention deficit disorders. Since when does having a medical condition make you an expert?

In its annual list of hokey science claims, the British-based Sense About Science (SAS) watchdog group took aim at celebrities. Lindsay Hogg, SAS's assistant director, noted that when celebrities give opinions about causes of disease, cures, or diets, their opinion goes worldwide within seconds: "It gets public attention and appears in every related Google search for months. If it's scientifically wrong, we're stuck with the fallout from that."

The organization which promotes good science and evidence in public debates slammed supermodel Naomi Campbell and actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore for their "cleansing" diet of maple syrup, lemon and pepper; criticized singer Olivia Newton-John for her dubious theory of how taking digestive enzymes boosts her immune system; and cited David Beckham and soon-to-be princess Kate Middleton for wearing hologram-embedded silicone bracelets which falsely claim to improve energy and fitness. The strangest celebrity health claim, however, came from cage fighter Alex Reid, whose tips for preparing for a fight included "reabsorbing" his "supersperm" for what he believed was their nutritional value. Hokey - and delusional.

Say what?

"We'd like to see more celebrities checking out the science before they open their mouths and send the wrong thing viral," write the scientists behind Sense About Science (SAS), found at www.senseaboutscience.org.uk. When you hear a celebrity say "chemical free" or "detox" or they claim to have exercise shortcuts or immune-boosting secrets, remember the following, says the SAS:

Nothing is chemical free: Everything is made of chemicals, it's just a case of which ones.

Detox is a marketing myth: Our body does it without pricey potions and detox diets.

There's no need to "boost": Bodily functions occur without "boosting."

Energy and fitness come from food and exercise: There are no shortcuts

Celebrities to celebrate

Not all celebrities hawk questionable cures based on sloppy science. The following have helped raise awareness for legitimate health issues:

Cyclist Lance Armstrong, testicular cancer

Actress Halle Berry, diabetes

TV anchor Katie Couric, colorectal cancer

Actor Michael J. Fox, Parkinson's disease

Actor Christopher Reeve, spinal cord injury

Actress Carrie Fisher, bipolar disorder

Actor Patrick Swayze, pancreatic cancer

MORE COLUMNS BY MARILYN LINTON, SPECIAL TO QMI AGENCY

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