Actress Jessica Biel is helping activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. fight against the passage of a California state bill that would limit exemptions from childhood vaccinations. As the internet exploded over the news that Biel might be an anti-vaxxer, Biel issued a statement today explaining why she does not support this controversial bill.
"I am not against vaccinations," Biel wrote in an Instagram post on Thursday. "I support children getting vaccinations and I also support families having the right to make educated medical decisions for their children alongside their physicians." The actress encouraged her followers to read more and “learn about the intricacies of #SB276.”
We did just that, and here’s what we learned.
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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!
What is the SB 276 vaccine exemption bill?
SB 276 is a California state bill that would require medical exemptions from immunizations to be approved by the California Department of Public Health. Officials estimate that the bill, which is currently under review, would deny around 40% of the 11,500 medical exemption requests made each year, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Since 2015, California has enforced a strict immunization law that requires children to be vaccinated before attending a public or private school, unless a licensed physician deems that a child’s medical condition would allow them to be exempt from a specific vaccine. It abolished all non-medical exemptions, such as the religious exemptions that some states allow.
Since the law was enacted, however, data shows that medical exemptions from doctors in California have also increased. This could imply that there are loopholes in the law that are being taken advantage of, according to a fact sheet about the bill issued by Senator Richard Pan, MD, the bill’s sponsor.
“While the vast majority of physicians continue to uphold standards of care, a small number of unethical physicians have monetized their license by selling medical exemptions for profit,” the fact sheet states.
The fact sheet also states that California law currently requires “no state-level oversight, approval, or standardization of medical exemptions,” and that “medical exemptions often contain incomplete information and may be issued for reasons other than established, scientifically-valid contraindications.”
With SB 276, lawmakers are attempting to create a single standardized form that doctors would be required to use when requesting a medical exemption from a vaccine. A state public health officer would then be required to either confirm or deny the request.
The bill is sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics California, the California Medical Association, and the parent advocacy group Vaccinate California.
What medical exemptions would be allowed under the bill?
SB 276 does not list specific health conditions that would or would not be granted medical exemptions if it were signed into law. Physicians would be required to submit their name and medical license number along with each application they make for a patients’ medical exemptions.
According to a Fact Vs. Myth page on Senator Pan’s website, parents will “continue to have the right to seek exemptions, and physicians will continue to have the right to provide exemptions whenever there is a medical necessity for the child to be exempted from legally-required vaccines” under the new bill. Dr. Pan told Health that Department of Health officials will weigh all exemption requests against the CDC’s Contraindications and Precautions Guidelines.
CDC website provides an extensive list of vaccines and the medical conditions that might conflict with them. For example, they recommend that anyone with a weakened immune system caused by a medical condition (such as cancer or AIDS) should not get the chickenpox vaccine.
Opponents of the bill say they worry that children with real medical reasons to avoid vaccinations will be denied exemptions, and parents will be forced to vaccinate them before they can attend school. Catherine Flores-Martin of the non-profit group California Immunization Coalition disagrees. “Legitimate medical exemptions will be approved,” she told the Los Angeles Times in May. “Opponents just don’t like that their particular exemption may not be approved.”
"This bill is about keeping kids safe at school," says Dr. Pan. "It's about giving the kids who have legitimate health conditions that require medical exemptions from vaccines the right to be at school by insuring that they won't get sick from a child who is unvaccinated by choice."
In her Instagram post, Biel wrote that her 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.”
Biel didn’t specify which condition her friend’s child has, or why she believes it would be denied exemption under the new bill.
Why are vaccines important?
It’s true that some people cannot receive vaccines because of medical conditions. But for those who can, the World Health Organization recognizes them as an important part of preventing the spread of infectious diseases in society. The WHO estimates that two to three million deaths are prevented annually as a result of vaccinations, but that number could be even higher.
“A further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved,” the group said.
Here in the United States, more than 1,000 individual measles cases have been diagnosed across 28 states in the first six months of 2019—the greatest number of cases reported since 1992 Though the disease was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, people have brought back the disease from other countries and has spread among communities of unvaccinated people. The majority of the people who have gotten sick from the disease are unvaccinated, Rachael Lee, MD, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham previously told Health.
But measles aren’t the only problem. Diseases like polio, chickenpox and whooping cough are still problems in some parts of the United States and around the world. If those who can be vaccinated receive the appropriate vaccines, they can prevent the spread of diseases like these to those who are unable to be vaccinated.
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