A Hollywood education in health

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 June, 2013, 2:10am

Angelina Jolie and Michael Douglas have been praised for going public with their medical conditions. Regarded by many as the world's sexiest woman, Jolie wrote in The New York Times last month about her decision to have a double mastectomy because she has a mutated gene that would significantly raise her chances of developing breast cancer.

Meanwhile, Douglas has reportedly blamed oral sex for giving him throat cancer. However, his publicist has now denied he meant he had contracted the cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV) by performing cunnilingus. But most readers of the original interview in The Guardian newspaper took him to mean just that. The two sets of news are supposed to be educational by helping to raise public awareness about health issues. But exactly what awareness are they supposed to raise? As it turns out, the mutated BRCA1 gene that Jolie carries is rare. So the radical step that she took is almost certain to be too drastic or unnecessary for many women. Also the gene test is very expensive, costing more than US$3,000 in the US because the bio-tech company Myriad Genetics holds patents on the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. The US Supreme Court will rule on the validity of the patent later this month, though the company's share price shot up on publication of Jolie's news story. Is she courageous? Given the amount of worldwide attention on her appearances, people would eventually speculate on any physical changes. So she got ahead of the story and took control of it. Brave? Perhaps. Clever? Definitely.

In Douglas' case, it's perhaps a little more helpful in raising awareness. Yes, you can contract HPV by performing oral sex, for both men and women, though not all strains of HPV are cancer-causing. This is probably a public health message worth repeating or broadcasting widely.

But it doesn't help that Douglas or his publicist has now disowned the story. As a result, it's not clear exactly what message he was trying to spread. Except, perhaps, this one: listen to me because I have a new movie out.

Forgive my cynicism but Douglas plays the late Liberace, the flamboyant pianist, in a just-released HBO biopic.

Both stars certainly got what stars need most: attention.