A new study published in February 2020 in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery shows that using mainstream media to depict rare diseases in a realistic manner can prompt greater public awareness and support for such conditions.
Rare diseases have a very small presence in this world, affecting about 400 million people around the globe. Despite the very few cases of each kind of disease, they often cause a lot of suffering and require significant treatment and rehabilitation. In other words, they create a heavy burden in financial terms as well as the amount of care they need, both on the patients and the health care system. Yet it is challenging to mobilize funds for research, prevention, and treatment, to raise awareness about the condition, or to get sufficient manpower.
Increasing the level of awareness is an urgent necessity, therefore. One possible way out is to show television shows focusing on these conditions as part of widely seen programs. One is the Netflix series, Stranger Things, which showcases the life of Dustin Henderson, a fictional individual born with the rare disease cleidocranial dysplasia (CCD). Henderson is portrayed by actor Gaten Matarazzo III who himself has this condition.
LOS ANGELES – JUN 28: Cast at the "Stranger Things" Season 3 World Premiere at the Santa Monica High School on June 28, 2019 in Santa Monica, CA. Image Credit: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock
CCD is a genetic condition in which the clavicles, or collar bones, and the teeth fail to grow or grow abnormally. These features are emphasized in scenes where Dustin is explaining the condition to his friends and colleagues.
However, symptoms vary between patients, even in the same family. CCD currently affects 1 in a million children the world over, both boys and girls.
The early features of abnormal bone development include a prolonged period of open fontanelles when the bones of the skull remain separate at the front and back of the head for more than the usual length of time. The absence of complete collarbones may make the chest appear narrow, and the shoulders are sloping. In fact, many of these children can make their shoulders touch in front.
Bone density is low, the pelvis is narrow, and the height shorter than expected. Baby teeth are lost early, and the secondary teeth arrive late, which may cause the jaw to be crowded with teeth and the jaw misaligned.
The disease is due to an abnormality of the RUNX2 gene, mostly due to a de novo mutation, that is, one which arises at random in the developing embryo rather than being inherited from the parents. If one of the two copies of this gene is affected, the condition will manifest itself.
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Treatment could include dental replacements, speech therapy, treatment of sinus and ear infections, supplementation with vitamin D and calcium, and protecting the head from trauma until the bones are fused.
The current study uses Google Trends and data from websites related to CCD to examine the link between how the condition is portrayed on television shows and the resulting increase in public interest and awareness of CCD.
Google Trends was used to look at the trends for searches focusing on CCD after the show Stranger Things was released. The researchers did a worldwide search for searches with this keyword, over a 5-year period from 2014 to 2019. Also, they asked several foundations dealing with CCD, such as the Children’s Craniofacial Foundation, about any increase in the number of calls or website hits after each season’s release of Stranger Things. This was compared with the expected traffic.
The researchers found that search interest surged by over 94% after the third season’s release of Stranger Things. In comparison, an increase of about 11% and almost 13% was seen after season 1 and season 2.
Public interest in CCD was reported to increase by all websites related to this topic. However, quantifiable data were obtained only from the foundation About KidsHealth, which had, on average, 5 to 80 views of the CCD page each week, but in the week succeeding the third season’s release of the show, 10,000 visits.
The portrayal of the condition on the popular television show has helped spark interest in many individuals. Each season has seen a spurt in weekly searches above the predicted number. Meanwhile, Matarazzo has participated in setting up the new foundation CCD Smiles, which is focused on raising awareness of this condition around the world, helping affected people with their dental work, and helping research.
The importance of harnessing celebrity power is vast reach it can offer via already existing links to the public and the media.
And when public awareness increases, funding goes up, early diagnosis is more likely, treatment becomes more broad-based, and people learn to understand and cope with the disorder. This, in turn, helps those affected by it to develop more coping strategies, feel a greater sense of integration into the broader community, and have a better quality of life.
The media also has a catalytic role in helping hundreds of thousands of people to understand such conditions better and to make sure they are correctly represented. Accurate artistic depiction of such conditions is guided by the Entertainment Industries Council, which develops material to help writers and producers understand the disease better so they can present it correctly.
However, at present, there is no guide material for CCD and many other rare diseases. Therefore, the study concludes, “Although writers need to exercise caution when portraying characters with rare disorders, the inclusion of such characters in the mainstream media may be a beneficial strategy to raise awareness of them.”
Johnson AL, Torgerson T, Cooper C, Khojasteh J, Vassar M. Public Awareness of Cleidocranial Dysplasia After Season Releases of Stranger Things. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. Published online February 20, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamaoto.2019.4791