Jessica Biel says she supports vaccines — which is exactly what anti-vaxxers say

Cloaking anti-vaccine beliefs in the rhetoric of civil and religious liberties does not sound overtly anti-science. But I don’t believe them, and neither should you.
Image: Jessica Biel
Jessica Biel arrives at the 2018 Emmy Awards.Christopher Polk / NBC
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By Tara C. Smith, professor of epidemiology at Kent State University

Jessica Biel is a celebrity perhaps best known for her marriage to Justin Timberlake. But the “Sinner” star jumped back into the headlines last week after she met with California legislators to lobby against California’s SB276, pending legislation that would tighten the process for receiving medical exemptions for vaccinations. The goal of the bill is to prevent fraudulent exemptions, especially as the U.S. experiences a serious measles outbreak. Biel was accompanied by noted anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer whose family recently publicly called out his dangerous advocacy, which has included comparing vaccines to the Holocaust.

Kennedy first drew attention to Biel’s visit by posting photos of the two of them on his Instagram page. Inevitably, press coverage — and with it, backlash — followed Biel’s visit. And just as inevitably, Biel’s response, via her own Instagram page, stated that despite appearances, she is “not against vaccinations.” Rather, the actress said she supports both vaccinations and "families having the right to make educated medical decisions for their children.”

The actress said she supports both vaccinations and "families having the right to make educated medical decisions for their children.” I'm not buying it.

I’m not buying it.

In fact, “I’m not anti-vaccine” is the fallback claim of every anti-vaccine activist. Jenny McCarthy, for instance, claims the movement she helps to lead is “… not an anti-vaccine movement. We’re pro-safe-vaccine schedule.” She even penned an op-ed in 2014 claiming that she is “pro-vaccine” and that she “never told anyone to not vaccinate.”

Yes, that Jenny McCarthy.

Andrew Wakefield, the British physician who was stripped of his license for carrying out an “elaborate fraud” in his 1998 study purporting to link MMR vaccination to the development of autism, tried to argue in 2001 that another of his papers was “… not anti-vaccine. It is about the safest way in which to deliver these vaccines to children.” At a recent rally in New York, the site of the largest measles outbreak in the country, Wakefield continued to claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism, that the CDC is involved in a conspiracy to mislead individuals about vaccines, that measles, mumps and rubella are harmless and that it is the vaccinated, not the unvaccinated, who are spreading measles.

Dr. Paul Thomas, an Oregon physician and a co-author of “The Vaccine-Friendly Plan,” claims his book is not anti-vaccine: “This is not an anti-vaccine book. It's not a pro-vaccine book. It's a pro-kids, pro healthy children book.” He refers to himself as “pro-informed consent.” Yet the book contains common anti-vaccine arguments, and a patient of Thomas’s recently contracted tetanus and was hospitalized for eight weeks at a cost of over $800,000.

Kennedy himself has used a similar tactic. In response to an editorial by several members of his family nothing that his anti-vaccine activities are at odds with the Kennedy family’s history of strong vaccine support, RFK Jr. responded that he simply wants “safe vaccines with robust safety testing.”

These are only a handful of examples of prominent advocates. I could link to hundreds of ordinary individuals and groups who similarly try to spin their anti-vaccine rhetoric into something more palatable for the general public. This means instead of anti-vaccine, they use such phrases as “pro-medical freedom,” “pro-vaccine choice,” “pro-informed consent,” “pro-vaccine safety,” or characterize themselves as “anti-forced vaccination,” “anti-vaccine mandate” and “vaccine risk aware.”

But no matter what combination of words are used, pretty much all of these advocates claim that vaccines are, in some way, dangerous. The fact that such dangers are not supported by rigorous scientific research is of little concern.

And Biel, for all her protesting, is following the same playbook. She explains that her advocacy stems from a friend whose child apparently requires a medical exemption to being vaccinated. Medical exemptions should be rare, but in California they have recently exploded in popularity as unscrupulous doctors sign dozens of exemptions — sometimes for cash. If this particular exemption is legitimate, then Biels’ friend should be even more invested in maintaining herd immunity — a level of immunity in the population high enough to prevent the spread of infections — to protect the child. A legislative staffer who attended meetings with Biel and Kennedy noted that both spent time “talking about their personal belief that vaccines are both dangerous and ineffective." This does not sound like someone who is merely trying to make sure a friend’s legitimate exemption is protected.

Because not all medical exemptions are legitimate. The staffer also reported discussion of “… a gene associated with vaccine injuries, and when I looked it up, I could only find it on these anti-vax sites.” The staffer later confirmed it had been a reference to variants in the MTHFR gene. Though variants in this gene are extremely common and typically not harmful, anti-vaccine sites have latched onto this gene as a way to gain fraudulent medical exemptions from vaccination — the only type of exemption that is recognized in California, and what SB276 would more carefully police.

Recently, the authors of the only published research paper linking MTHFR variants to vaccine outcomes pushed back on anti-vaxxers' using their research to justify such exemptions: “It is unfortunate that the loose application of our exploratory report has been misinterpreted and used to inappropriately justify exemption of children from medically indicated vaccines,” lead author David Reif said.

Especially since California’s measles outbreak in 2015, the divisions between those who support vaccines and those who don’t have become more polarized. Those of us who support vaccination are tired of those who benefit from extreme privilege, like Biel and Kennedy, and employ that privilege in an effort to weaken protections from infectious diseases for all of us. Their claim that they’re “not anti-vaccine” is a necessary smokescreen because the benefits of vaccines are too numerous to deny; of course no rational person could actually be anti-vaccine. Cloaking anti-vaccine beliefs in rhetoric about civil and religious liberties or parental rights does not sound overtly anti-science. But I don’t believe them, and neither should you.