Jessica Biel became the subject of major backlash when she was photographed working alongside anti-vaxxer activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Wednesday. Because that 24-hour news cycle doesn't quit, by early Thursday morning the actress took to Instagram to clarify that unlike Kennedy, she is "not against vaccinations" — however, she is against a proposed California bill that would limit medical exemptions for vaccines.
If that was a lot for you to process, too, don't worry — we spoke to a pediatrician about what you should know when it comes to vaccine safety and exemptions.
"If you look at the data on vaccine safety, vaccines are incredibly safe. If you look at the data on vaccine efficacy, vaccines, when used effectively, are incredibly effective," says Michael Moody, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at the Duke University School of Medicine. "However, there are individual people who may have adverse reaction to a vaccination or be unable to respond to a vaccination. And those individuals may have a bad outcome of some sort, or they may not derive any benefit from it."
And while reactions to vaccines are rare, they have nonetheless become a cause for concern for some people. In recent years, many people have chosen not to vaccinate their children over concerns that vaccines cause other health problems, such as autism (a myth that has been widely debunked).
The bill that Biel is protesting, #SB277, is a California bill that would combat illegitimate medical exemptions for vaccines. Medical exemptions essentially allow people (usually children) to opt out of being immunized due to a medical condition. According to the National Vaccine Information Center, medical exemptions tend to be “very difficult to obtain because almost all medical reasons for delaying or withholding vaccines have been eliminated by government and medical trade officials.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has come out opposing non-medical exemptions to vaccines, and has recommended that only medical exemptions be allowed for vaccine requirements for child care and school attendance.
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This week I went to Sacramento to talk to legislators in California about a proposed bill. I am not against vaccinations — I support children getting vaccinations and I also support families having the right to make educated medical decisions for their children alongside their physicians. My concern with #SB276 is solely regarding medical exemptions. 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. That’s why I spoke to legislators and argued against this bill. Not because I don’t believe in vaccinations, but because I believe in giving doctors and the families they treat the ability to decide what’s best for their patients and the ability to provide that treatment. I encourage everyone to read more on this issue and to learn about the intricacies of #SB276. Thank you to everyone who met with me this week to engage in this important discussion!
Dr. Moody says that the kinds of conditions he could see warranting an exemption would be if someone had an organ or bone marrow transplant, which would make their immune systems less receptive to vaccines. Still, he says, "There’s no blanket decision of, 'you have condition x, therefore you shouldn’t get a vaccine.'"
"Part of the issue is that [exemptions are] left up to the discretion of providers and families, and that isn't necessarily inappropriate — we don't want to take away the ability of physicians to decide what’s correct for their patients — but we do need to make sure that the decisions being made are based on data that is accurate and appropriate," he says.
In California at the moment, doctors can grant medical exemptions to vaccination without the approval of the state’s Department of Public Health. According to Kaiser Health News, this has resulted in doctors allowing patients to claim unnecessary medical exemptions to being immunized.
California Healthline reports that in the past two years, the number of children in California who have been granted a medical exemption has tripled — which is a big problem as the state fights measles outbreaks.
"Most people would derive benefit from vaccines and would provide benefit to society by getting vaccinated," Dr. Moody says. "In some sense, it comes down to the social contract — how much responsibility do we have for making sure we aren’t putting our fellow humans at risk when we could do something reasonable to do so?"
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccines don't just protect you — they protect people around you, too.
"A lot of the times, people view this whole thing as, 'well I’m just accepting risk for my child and myself.' But we already have vaccines out there that are designed to protect people not primarily infected," Dr. Moody says, pointing to the rubella vaccination.
With regard to Biel, Dr. Moody says that while he supports everyone's rights to free speech and protest, his concern is that it's hard to have a nuanced conversation when high-profile individuals promote positions where it's challenging to have a dialogue.
"It's not that I have an issue with the celebrity themselves expressing an opinion," he tells InStyle. "The problem is that when someone who has a voice talks about things about which they may not have all the data — I don't want to disparage anyone’s intelligence, ethics, or intentions, it’s just, do they have the right data?"
The bottom line is, we're all concerned about what's safest for our children and ourselves — we just have to consider all the facts we can gather to make the most informed decisions.
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