Hep C & the role of celebrities in healthcare public awareness

Celebrities and science: it all sounds a bit dubious. After all actors, pop singers or reality TV “stars” aren’t the most qualified people to be speaking on scientific topics, and over the years there have been more than a few celeb science blunders – such as Heather Mills stating it was a fact that meat “sits in your colon for 40 years and putrefies, and eventually gives you the illness you die of”, or Shilpa Shetty suggesting that drinking fizzy drinks sucks the oxygen out of your body.

Such celeb quotes, which are often found to endorse unproven scientific claims that support pseudo-science products or are just pure gibberish, are gathered and published annually by Sense About Science in their “Celebrities and Science” report. This is often a good and humorous read in which Sense About Science seek to decipher fact from fiction.

As a consequence of this celeb “non-science” that is often reported in the media, the negative side of them endorsing science has attracted much attention. However, when handed the correct information this platform can really help generate public awareness of many science and health issues and thus shouldn’t be dismissed. After all their position in society has allowed them to become influencers and if the recent focus-group study by Amanda Hinnant, University of Missouri School of Journalism, is anything to go by, then “celebrity health messages play an important role in society” and have shown to influence some consumers on their “own behaviour and how they discuss health issues”.  I think the BBC’s “Cause Celeb” is a prime example of celebs talking about science and health in a way that positively promotes public awareness. In these videos, celebrities talk about their first hand experience of dealing with certain health issues that have either affected them directly or through a family member. Having attended this year’s Liver Meeting in Boston MA, I was only too pleased to see Sadie Frost on last week’s “Cause Celeb” talking about her father’s journey as a hepatitis C sufferer and in turn helping to raise awareness of the disease through her role as an actress and patron of the Hepatitis C Trust.

Unbeknown to me until recently, hepatitis C affects approximately 170 million people globally and was only diagnosed just over 20 years ago. Since then much research has been done and scientists and clinicians now know a lot more about the disease and how it is transmitted – it is a viral infection of the liver which is spread through blood. Sadie Frost was urging people who think they might have contracted the disease to go and get themselves “checked-out” at the hospital. This is wise advice as many people harbour the disease unknowingly until they show late-stage liver problems such as cirrhosis and liver cancer, which are often irreversible. What’s more if the research that was presented at the meeting stands true, liver damage could be prevented by fighting the viral infection off:  results indicate that once the hepatitis C virus has been cleared from the body it is very unlikely to reappear – so once it has gone you are more or less cured.

However, without sounding too bleak, diagnosis isn’t all that easy and it is thought less than 20% of hepatitis C patients in America get diagnosed (a number thought to be much less elsewhere) and with a standard of care that offers only a 60% success rate, much still needs to be done to identify and help these patients overcome this disease. With future projections predicting 50% of the USA patients will be cirrhotic in the next decade and that incidences of liver cancer will significantly rise, it is no wonder an independent analysis found that healthcare costs for hepatitis C patients could rise to a staggering $80 billion per year from the current $30 billion. With this pending future, I believe awareness of the clinical hurdles is also important to help push more money into continual research.

I am pleased to end with a more upbeat note. At the meeting I heard many positive results from final stage clinical trials on novel anti-viral drugs that will work in combination with the standard of care. Clinicians hope these positive results will now lead to some of these drug candidates becoming available next year for their patients. Also, in the past year we have gained great insight into the link between a patient’s response to therapy and the alleles found at the site encoding interleukin 28B (the IL28B gene). Patients carrying C/C alleles showed to be more responsive than patients who carried either one or a pair of T alleles. This knowledge is now strongly influencing research and future drug development.

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