On Tuesday, Biel joined Kennedy at the California State Assembly to lobby against SB-276, a state bill that would require approval from a public health officer if a parent didn’t want their child to be vaccinated.
Biel expressed concern that if passed, the bill would make it difficult for parents to have their child exempt for medical reasons. Anti-vaxxers are also concerned that the bill would make it harder for parents to enroll their kids in public school or day care if they aren’t vaccinated.
The bill would require the California state Department of Health to develop a standardized medical exemption request form, which “would be the only medical exemption documentation that a governing authority may accept.”
In an Instagram post shared Thursday morning, she attempted to clarify her opinion on vaccinations and stated she is not against immunizations.
“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,” Biel wrote.
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“My concern with SB-276 is solely regarding medical exemptions.”
Biel cited her “dearest friends” who have a child with a medical condition that supposedly warrants an exemption from vaccinations. She wrote that SB-276 would “greatly affect their family’s ability to care for their child in this state.”
Biel also said she’s arguing against the bill because she believes 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.”
The bill calls for a standardized vaccine exemption form that would clearly state what allows — and what doesn’t allow — for a medical exemption to be granted, “based on guidelines of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”
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The bill is co-sponsored by the California Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
California already has one of the toughest immunization laws in the United States, but there have been concerns that anti-vaccination doctors are excusing children from vaccinations due to unrelated health concerns, such as diabetes.
Biel has never publicly taken a stance about vaccinations, but there have been reports that she and her husband, Justin Timberlake, didn’t plan to vaccinate their kid.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Kennedy said Biel was not explicitly in support of the anti-vaxx movement, but that she was a “very effective advocate.”
“I would say that she was for safe vaccines and for medical freedom,” he said. “My body, my choice.”
According to Kennedy — who once used the word “holocaust” to describe the number of children with autism in the United States — Biel was very knowledgeable on the subject of vaccinations.
“Extremely well-informed. An extremely effective advocate. She knows what she’s talking about… She’s upset about this issue because of its particular cruelty. She has friends who have been vaccine-injured who would be forced to leave the state,” he said.
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According to Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, chief of applied immunization research and evaluation at Public Health Ontario, anti-vaxxers commonly use veiled language to communicate their views instead of outright saying them.
Crowcroft says anti-vax groups use narratives about parents making “informed health decisions” on their own, suggesting that doctors or the government should not be the ones deciding whether or not they vaccinate.
Medical exemptions from vaccinations
Despite messaging from the anti-vaxx community, there are few, very rare reasons why a child may not be physically able to receive a vaccination.
“There are some children who are born with naturally very weak immune systems, and they cannot receive some of the live vaccines, like measles or yellow fever,” said Dr. Brian Ward, a professor of medicine at McGill University.
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“There are other children whose immune systems are transiently damaged by medical therapies. For example, a child exposed to radiation.”
Another instance would be a child with HIV, although Ward says this doesn’t happen often anymore because of HIV treatments.
In the event that a child has a severe anaphylactic reaction to the first dose of a vaccine, they will also require a medical exemption.
“It is extraordinarily rare but an individual might have true anaphylaxis and go into shock when they receive a vaccine that’s been grown in eggs, for example,” said Ward.
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In these cases, Ward says doctors will request a medical exemption, since such living vaccines contain “attenuated organisms” and can significantly harm a child.
This means the organisms themselves are weakened, “but if there is no immune system at all to fight back, then even a very weakened organism can do some damage,” Ward said.
“A child or a person with a ‘normal’ immune system should have no whatsoever with those weakened viruses, but somebody who… doesn’t have any immune system, they could actually get quite sick.”
What is ‘cocooning’ and why it’s important
For kids who receive an exemption from vaccines, Ward says the need for others to be vaccinated is even more critical.
“Those kids don’t have a choice. The parents of those kids don’t have a choice,” said Ward.
“That’s why there is a real push to make sure that all of those people around them are vaccinated — that’s called ‘cocooning.'”
People who can get vaccinated but choose not to put children with weakened immune systems in danger.
A child with a weakened immune system, for example, may get sick from a measles vaccine. However, that same vulnerable child would likely die if they contracted measles from an unvaccinated peer.
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In Ward’s professional opinion, vaccines are still the best defence against several fatal diseases.
“A healthy child who gets measles… has about a one in 1,000, maybe one in 3,000 chances of dying… That’s a pretty high risk of having a dead child,” said Ward.
“For me, an anti-vaxx doctor is an oxymoron…. there’s no such thing.”
Vaccines don’t cause autism
The theory that vaccines cause autism, originally posited by a 1998 study in the Lancet journal by former British doctor Andrew Wakefield, has been debunked numerous times.
The British Medical Journal called his research “fraudulent,” and on Feb. 2, 2010, the Lancet formally retracted the study due to serious flaws and an undisclosed conflict of interest. The British medical authorities stripped Wakefield of his licence in May 2010.
Dr. Benjamin Mazer, a doctor at Yale-New Haven Hospital, said the reason this study is still cited two decades later is that the cause of autism is still a mystery. So if you are a parent looking for answers, the vaccine link may be “an appealing idea,” Mazer said.
“You also have people who have a dislike for the profit motive in medicine and pharmaceutical companies. There’s a dislike for feeling dehumanized from overworked doctors and a dislike for the cost of health care,” he said.
“This makes people very distrustful.”
— With files from Katie Scott & Katie Dangerfield