Celebrities Can Give Positive Health Behaviors a Shot in the Arm, Really!

For getting the shingles vaccination, fear is a strong motivator.

Posted Jun 13, 2011

Shingles rash. Credit: WebMd.com

Usually celebrities are in the health news because of their shocking health, and mental health, behaviors--sexting and tweeting their body parts, cheating on a spouse, flunking rehab again, ranting narcissistically, and...Need I go on?

But celebrities can also be excellent role models for healthy and life-saving behaviors.  Katie Couric, for example, famously had a colonoscopy live on national television in 2000.  Because of her own husband's untimely death at age 42 from colorectal cancer, advocating for preventive colonoscopies became her personal mission. In a phenomenon dubbed "the Couric effect," colonoscopy rates in the U.S. rose by 20% after her on-air procedure.  Couric's campaign probably saved thousands of lives.  

Recently, there were rumors in my home town that St. Louis Cardinals baseball manager Tony La Russa had developed a case of shingles.  I paid attention, because I'd spent several years intending to get the vaccination.  Still, "Get shingles vaccine" lingered at the bottom of my to-do list, even though I vaguely knew some of the shingles basics below:

  • After a case of chickenpox, the chickenpox virus remains in the body. As we age, the chance that it will re-emerge to cause shingles increases.  1/3 of people who've had chickenpox will develop shingles.  That's a lot!
  • Shingles sufferers can experience a rash, blisters, and severe pain.  About 1 in 5 people will suffer from nerve damage after the rash clears up (the dreaded postherpetic pain).
  • It's rare, but possible, for shingles to lead to blindness, brain inflammation, or hearing loss.
  • A vaccine is available for those 50 and older. 
  • The shingles vaccination can reduce the incidence of shingles by about 1/2; for those who still come down with shingles, it can reduce the severity and length of symptoms, particularly the excruciating postherpetic pain.

Did your eyes glaze over as you were reading those facts?  Maybe that's why some psychologists scoff at a "facts and fear" approach as having little effect on most people's health motivation.  Usually I'm very influenced by facts and fear!  But in this particular case, I knew the facts and felt some fear but still did nothing.  Until May 11.

On May 11, a dramatic photo of manager La Russa appeared in my local paper here. He did indeed have a case of shingles. The right side of his forehead was covered with an evil-looking rash, emerging from a patch of reddish, discolored skin.  Worse, his right eye was almost completely swollen shut.   

The effect on me was immediate.  Yes, one photo is worth at least 1000 words. La Russa's plight made the possibility of shingles real to me.  I could identify with his evident suffering and imagine myself in his place.  I vowed I would get a shingles vaccination that very day. 

And I did. That afternoon, at my neighborhood Walgreen's Take Care Clinic, I asked the nurse practitioner if she'd seen a surge in shingles vaccinations as a result of the frightful photo that morning.  "Oh yes," she said. "Usually we might do one per day at most.  You are my tenth shingles vaccination today."   

To get a bigger picture, I emailed Take Care Clinics.  Although they do not release specific information about their "patient traffic," a spokesperson wrote, she acknowledged that "Take Care Clinics in the greater St. Louis region saw an uptick in interest in the shingles vaccine after Mr. La Russa's public diagnosis."   Good.  Unlike Couric, Tony La Russa did not deliberately launch a campaign encouraging people to get vaccinated.  Still, he allowed his image to be used.  So thanks, Tony, for getting some of us off the dime. 

What does it take to motivate people to act in their own best interest?  The story of my shingles vaccination illustrates that you often can't change a health behavior with rational analysis alone.  You've got to get your emotions involved, and the horrific photo of La Russa upped the ante--in this case, the fear quotient--enough to move me and many others to action.  Unless someone in your own circle has had shingles, you might not make getting vaccinated a priority, but "knowing" a celebrity with the disease can bring it home in a similar way. 

Fear is not usually a good motivator for long-term change, say for a healthy eating goal, because it causes too much anxiety. You need a meaningful motivator, like health, long life, or vitality to keep yourself going.  But in just the right dose, fear--FEAR!--is a great motivator for one act of instant change! 

© Meg Selig. All rights reserved. You may reproduce the first two paragraphs of this blog on your site if you (1) give full credit and (2) provide a link to this site like this: "For more, see the Changepower blog here." 


For more information on shingles, see http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/shingles/shingles-vaccine

For the story on Tony La Russa, see http://www.stltoday.com/news/science/article_e3ca259a-e50e-5897-8382-07a5ed5f0d5f.html.

For the CDC's brochure on the vaccination, see http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/vis/downloads/vis-shingles.pdf.

For more on motivation, please visit my website and facebook page!

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