A bill called SB 277 has been wending its way through the California state legal system over the past few months, concerning one of the most curiously polarizing issues of our time, and a young, energetic professor has been helping to shape it.
Doing so puts her in an uncomfortable spotlight, but she is tenacious and bold enough to withstand the pressure.
The bill would disallow the “personal belief exemption” from vaccines, so that only parents whose children receive a medical exemption will be able to opt out of the vaccine schedule required for attendance at public schools. It doesn’t seem like such a far-fetched idea, but Professor Reiss has been roundly castigated by anti-vaccine activists and those who claim to be pro-vaccine but anti-government-intervention.
“The anti-vaccine people like to assume that anyone who speaks up for vaccines is a pharma shill,” she said, referring to the idea that pharmaceutical corporations pay people to defend vaccinations in the press because they are such a financial juggernaut (although a simple scan of pharmaceutical companies’ earnings reports reveals that the profits from vaccines are a slim portion of their overall gains). “If you Google my name and vaccines, you’ll see articles claiming I’m a shill … so there’s a bit of pushback.”
“But,” she adds, “there have also been a lot of amazing, caring, knowledgeable people who have been devoting their time speaking up for children’s health,” she added. “This is something important. There’s nothing more worthy than fighting for children’s health.”
Though she is not an author of the bill, she has advised its authors on legal points, and now spends much of her free time advocating for vaccines via blogs, conferences and social media, correcting misconceptions about the legal issues around this and other legislation, such as SB 792, which would require teachers and daycare workers to be fully immunized. SB 277 has passed the California senate with bipartisan support, and SB 792 will be voted on next week. The next step for both bills is the California State Assembly. Because of widespread support, it is likely that they will both be signed into law in early 2016.
Professor Reiss has a four year old and is pregnant with her second child, which is how she first came to this issue. She spoke of the very real risks imposed on the general public by those who choose not to vaccinate. “This isn’t about families making independent choices, this is about a misguided minority forcing a risk upon other children, their newborn siblings, the other members of their families.”
For those who complain the elimination of personal belief exemptions takes away personal freedom, she points out that “we don’t allow people to drink and drive even though, theoretically, it’s your body and you can do what you want. You cannot force a risk on others.” In addition, she says, “To be clear, the bill is not forcing anyone to vaccinate. It’s just that parents who choose not to vaccinate will have limits on where they can send their children to school.”
Even with all her passion and determination, she feels for the parents who have been led to believe that vaccines caused their children to be autistic or disabled. “For people who experience this belief, of course the betrayal feels awful,” she says. “You think you’re doing something to protect your child, and you honestly believe this has led to an injury, of course they are going to have this anger and guilt. They really are hurting, but they are also still causing a dangerous situation,” she said.
And that’s not something she can stand for.