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Image / Editorial

Jessica Biel and the anti-vaxx backlash: What exactly happened?

by Jennifer McShane
15th Jun 2019

At the moment in the US, much attention is being paid to vaccines — as opposed to the diseases they prevent. Actress Jessica Biel weighed in on the vaccine debate this week, prompting a backlash on social media. 

The rise of vaccine-preventable diseases is in the news frequently in 2019. In Irish media most recently, the tragic passing of Laura Brennan saw conversation sparked about cervical cancer prevention and the HPV vaccine.

Laura worked tirelessly as an advocate for the HPV vaccine. Her cancer, like 5% of all cancers, is caused by the HPV, human papillomavirus. The vaccination rate in Ireland had fallen to 51%, thanks to much ill-founded negative publicity around the vaccine and so once her cancer returned, she began work with the HSE as the patient voice, to try and reverse this downward trend and prevent girls facing a similar fate to hers. The most recent figures reveal that the uptake of the vaccine has risen to 70%.

Related: Laura Brennan’s heroic documentary is a must-watch this weekend

Vaccines save lives. It’s a fact. Do some come with side-effects? Yes. Generally, these are limited rashes, fevers, or in extremely rare cases, seizures. But these risks pale in comparison with those of the diseases vaccines prevent, this is the stance of those who vehemently oppose the discussion of anti-vaccination. And so, many have taken issue with actress Jessica Biel’s latest comments on the issue.

Related: Confessions of a former anti-vaxx parent: ‘I wanted others to take on the risks of vaccinating’

What happened?

Just this week, the New York Times broke the story of Biel and her sitting smiling in an Instagram photograph next to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an activist who has frequently spoken out against childhood vaccines.


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A post shared by Jessica Biel (@jessicabiel) on

It was reported that the actress was lobbying against a California state bill aiming to limit exemptions from vaccinations. She quickly deleted the original Instagram photo and put up a fresh post. In her new post, she said that she’s “not against vaccinations” — but noted that she did have a problem with the part of the bill that had to do with medical exemptions.

Biel wrote: “My concern with [Bill] #SB277 [sic] 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.” The bill effectively would tighten immunisation requirements.

“I support children getting vaccinations and I also support families having the right to make educated medical decisions for their children alongside their physicians.”

Her comments come at a time when there is a surge in the outbreak of measles in the US – one such preventable disease via vaccination. Currently, children in California have to be vaccinated to go to public or private school, unless via a loophole – in this case, a doctor – says there’s a medical purpose for an exemption, i.e not getting vaccinated. This has been deemed problematic because, according to reports, some doctors have been giving exemptions for questionable purposes, such as asthma.

It is every parent’s right to look at every angle when it comes to the health of their children – and quite a few who were suspicious of vaccines voiced their support for Biel – but those who oppose the anti-vaccine movement took issue with Biel’s suggestion that parents and their individual doctors should have the ultimate choice when it comes to vaccinations over Government.

Because of the loophole, the number of exempted kids has grownThe Los Angeles Times reports. Hence the concern. As we know, vaccinations are most effective when there’s “herd immunity” — the more people who are vaccinated, the more powerful vaccinations are.

The anti-vaxx movement

This debate began with a study published nearly 20 years ago in The Lancet journal by Dr Andrew Wakefield. He raised the possibility of a link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine with bowel disease and autism. This research was later retracted and his work fully discredited. But the misinformation had dangerous consequences for parents who feared that exposure to such vaccinations could be detrimental to their children.

Misinformation is still a very real issue: Earlier this month, the parents of a 13-month-old boy admitted to being “unduly” influenced by anti-vaccine information on social media after he was taken to intensive care with a preventable disease.

The pushback is similar to that which make-up mogul and tattoo artist Kat Von D received when she publicly spoke of her plans not to vaccinate her child.

Main photograph: @THR

  • Read more: ‘How do I explain to my daughters that I am not legally recognised as their mum?’
  • Read more: ‘She was a light’: Emotional tributes paid as HPV campaigner Laura Brennan passes away

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