U. WARWICK (UK)—As Hollywood actor Michael Douglas hits the news headlines as the latest celebrity to reveal his cancer diagnosis, new research suggests media coverage of celebrity illnesses can have benefits for public health.

Researchers from the University of Warwick have explored how the volume of news articles covering a high-profile celebrity illness can influence public behavior.

In an article published in the Journal of Public Health, the researchers examined the case of U.K. 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 behavior, 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 U.K.

“The reversal of the downward trend is the most significant element as figures had been steadily falling since 2002. Our study suggests that Goody’s diagnosis and death led to an increase in the number of people looking for information about cervical cancer and screening,” says study coauthor David Metcalfe.

Researchers analyzed newspaper coverage 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 percent 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.

“The upturn in screening figures does suggest a role for the media in influencing public health behavior,” says co-author John Powell. “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 maximize public health opportunities.”

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