California legislators' attempts to close a loophole in an earlier law concerning vaccination exemptions got a whole lot more attention on Wednesday thanks to Jessica Biel. The actress and wife of Justin Timberlake traveled to the State Capitol in Sacramento yesterday alongside the anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to lobby members of the State Assembly to reconsider the bill (officially known as SB 276) after it had already been passed by the state Senate with a near two-thirds of state senators voting in favor.
Photos posted on Kennedy's Instagram account of the actress lead many to believe that Biel had become the surprising new celebrity face of the anti-vax movement (many pointed to an anonymous source who told the tabloid Life & Style in 2014 that Biel and Timberlake had opted against vaccinating their children). Biel, however, released a statement on Instagram claiming that she is "not against vaccinations" but rather supports "families having the right to make educated medical decisions for their children alongside their physicians.”
So what is the truth? On the one hand, it is sort of complicated. On the other, the strongest opponents of the otherwise common-sense bill are members of the anti-vax movement. We'll break it down for you.
The backstory: A surprising measles comeback in California.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there have been 1,022 reported cases of measles in 2019. Despite the fact that the year isn't even half over, this is the most cases reported since 1992 and a surprising development considering that measles had been eliminated thanks to widespread vaccinations in 2000. California had already suffered a major measles outbreak back in 2014 (linked to an infected person who visited Disneyland in Anaheim), and is among the states facing outbreaks this year as well. The outbreaks have been linked to the relatively small but growing activist group known popularly as anti-vaxxers (though the official term is "vaccine hesitancy").
Despite overwhelming scientific consensus that vaccines are both safe and effective, anti-vaxxers claim, with absolutely no scientific evidence, that vaccines can cause autism and other disorders.
It's simply not true. However, the fact that measles is a potentially deadly disease (especially among young children) is very, very true.
So everyone who can be vaccinated should be, then, to protect the most vulnerable.
While vaccines are safe for those who are healthy, a very small group of people with other health problems are advised to avoid them. Meanwhile, babies do not get their first measles vaccines until they're at least 12 months old, and their second, completing immunization, until they're between 4 and 6 years of age. To protect those most vulnerable from a highly contagious disease like the measles, a population relies on "herd immunity." Before the days of vaccines, one person with measles would infect another 10 to 15 people on average, and most recent outbreaks have started with one single person who picked up the virus abroad and brought it back to the United States. Some vaccinations may seem like a personal choice, but in truth the actions of a single person can affect the health of potentially hundreds of others. To achieve herd immunity against measles, about 90 to 95 percent of a population must be vaccinated.
While the anti-vaxxer movement is nowhere near mainstream, it has spread like, well, a virus among certain communities, notably in pockets of California. In 2014, there were some California schools where less than 60 percent of the students weren't up-to-date on their vaccinations, according to The New York Times. The Atlantic reported that some Los Angeles–area schools' immunization rates were lower than that of South Sudan. Only 13 percent of kindergartners attending the Berkeley Rose School that year were up-to-date on vaccinations. That meant the entire population was put at risk for an outbreak.
So in 2014, California cracked down on anti-vaxxers with a simple law.
While it's the law across the country that students have to be vaccinated before attending school, California allowed parents to opt out of it through "personal belief exemptions," thus giving anti-vaxxers the tool to keep their kids unvaccinated. So California passed a law that went into effect in 2016 that eliminated those exemptions. Vaccination rates across the state almost immediately went up, and one would assume the story would end there.
It turns out that some parents were exploiting another loophole that SB 276 now wants to close.
The law still left medical exemptions, which are needed in very, very rare cases, intact. After the law passed, officials noticed that medical exemptions shot up. According to Wired, in 2014 just 0.2 percent of California students had permanent medical exemptions. Now that is up to 0.9 percent. While that seems like a relatively tiny portion of the population, officials found that the same schools that used to have high rates of personal exemptions now have high rates of medical exemptions. The only conclusion? Anti-vaxxer parents were now gaming the system. That, once again, could leave certain concentrated populations with high levels of anti-vax sentiment vulnerable, and there are fears that the practice could spread.
There's also evidence that these parents are all going to specific doctors who are acting in bad faith. The Voice of San Diego reported that a single doctor was responsible for a third of these exemptions in the entire San Diego school system: not just one school but rather one-third of such cases in the entirety of a school district of a major American city. Interestingly, according to a state Assembly staffer who wrote to Jezebel and was present at one of Biel's meeting with a lawmaker, the actress reportedly said she didn't vaccinate her own children according to the recommended vaccine schedule, and claimed she had to go to multiple doctors until she found one who agreed with her.
It's also not just pediatricians who are allowed to sign off on medical exemptions either. Technically, anti-vaxxer parents could take their kids to a dermatologist and get one as well. There're also concerns that some doctors are profiting off of the arrangement, putting their own bottom line above the greater public health good.
The state could investigate these doctors and make sure everything is on the up-and-up (a potentially time-consuming and expensive ordeal), or they could just pass another simple law closing the loophole. That's what SB 276 is.
It requires the Department of Public Health to sign off on any medical exemptions. It's based on an existing law in West Virginia, which has astoundingly high immunization rates and hasn't seen a case of the measles in over a decade (Mississippi also has a similar law on the books).
The California law was written by State Senator Richard Pan, who is an actual pediatrician, and has the support of both the California branch of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the California Medical Association.
The group most vocally against it is, of course, the anti-vaxxers.
But Jessica Biel says this is about parents' rights? Is it?
That's like saying that seat belt laws infringe on parents' rights to let their kids hop around untethered in the back of the family minivan as it speeds down the highway. Except it's worse, because in that case only the parents' own children are at risk. In the case of shady vaccine exemptions, those parents are putting other people at risk as well.
What about her friends' kid?
"My dearest friends have a child with a medical condition that warrants an exemption from vaccinations, and should this bill pass, it would greatly affect their family’s ability to care for their child in this state," wrote Biel in her Instagram response.
Children who actually need medical exemptions would still get them. Doctors and the state health board are in no way out to harm children with actual medical conditions.
There has been no publicized case of any sort of tragedy like this in West Virginia, where a similar law has been in place for decades.
What does Robert F. Kennedy Jr. have to do with this?
RFK Jr. made a name for himself as a tireless environmental activist, but in the past few years he's increasingly become a leading voice in the anti-vaxxer movement. His involvement in the movement has drawn harsh rebuke from other members of the Kennedy clan. That includes his sister and brother Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Joseph P. Kennedy II (both former elected officials) and his niece Maeve Kennedy McKean (who happens to be executive director of Georgetown University’s Global Health Initiatives).
"We love Robert F. Kennedy Jr., but he is part of a misinformation campaign that’s having heartbreaking—and deadly—consequences," they wrote in a joint op-ed for Politico earlier this month.
"The challenge for public health officials right now is that many people are more afraid of the vaccines than the diseases, because they've been lucky enough to have never seen the diseases and their devastating impact," they wrote. "But that’s not luck; it’s the result of concerted vaccination efforts over many years. We don’t need measles outbreaks to remind us of the value of vaccination."
How is the anti-vaxxer movement viewed nationwide?
Like we said, it seems to pop up in certain communities, and researchers have noticed a statistical uptick in vaccine hesitancy in recent years.
Yet while Americans cannot seem to agree on just about anything right now, the safety and effectiveness of vaccines remains common sense.
According to a Pew Research Poll from 2017, 88 percent of American believe that the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from this year also found that 71 percent of Americans also believe that children should be vaccinated even if parents object.
Anti-vaxxers like to push a narrative that corrupt government officials and greedy pharmaceutical companies are inflicting unsafe vaccines on children and hiding their risks from the general public.
Of course, not only is their vast medical and scientific consensus that vaccines are safe works but most regular, everyday Americans have also looked at the issue and come to the same stunningly obvious conclusion.
So, how is Biel's career going otherwise?
Oh, glad you asked. She has a show coming up that will be broadcast on Facebook. The same place where she may or may not get her medical advice.
How has the Internet responded?
Mostly with this joke: