Professor Dorit Rubinstein Reiss – 11 questions about vaccines (mostly)

This is the first of a series of virtual interviews of people who support vaccines. We start with Professor Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA). She is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy, and the law.

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also a member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.

The purpose of these interviews is to give you more background on those who fight for vaccines in social media and in public.

Hebrew University, Mount Scopus Campus. By User: Grauesel at wikivoyage shared, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Question 1 for Professor Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

Tell us about your background educational and work background. 

I am originally from Israel. After my military service, I did an undergraduate degree in law and political science and became interested in doing interdisciplinary work going forward. Meeting Prof. Malcolm Feeley from the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program (JSP) in Berkeley – who was teaching a class in the Hebrew University – taught me about that and other options in the United States.

I was accepted to the JSP and wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on agency accountability in the electricity and telecommunications fields. I went to work for UC Hastings in 2007, and have worked there since, teaching courses in torts, administrative law, and law and politics.

Most recently I got involved in writing and researching vaccine law and policy, and now I also teach a public health law course.

Question 2 for Professor Reiss

I understand you were in the Israel Defense Force (IDF). What did you do there? Did you command a tank?

LOL. Military service in the IDF is mandatory for non-religious Jewish girls and boys. I joined via general recruitment at 18 (some girls do a designated course before enlisting), did my boot camp and was assigned to be a military teacher.

Because the military at the time had too many people, especially too many women (at the time, women were barred from doing frontline jobs; that has since changed), they were providing people to the Ministry of Education to teach immigrants Hebrew. For a year, I was an instructor to new immigrants from Ethiopia, teaching adults Hebrew in the morning and children in the afternoon.

Then I went to officers’ course and became a personnel officer, in charge of calling reserve soldiers to do their stint (you can imagine how popular that made me).

Question 3 for Professor Reiss

What do you do today?

I am a law professor. My job has three parts: teaching, research, and service. I can write about whatever interests me, and recently most of my research and writing was vaccine-related. I teach torts, administrative law, public health law, and a number of other courses. Service includes administrative service to the school, serving on committees and doing other things, and public service – like speaking on public issues. In addition, being an academic involves presenting work in progress or presenting on your research in a variety of forums, like academic conferences, so there’s quite a bit of travel.

Question 4 for Professor Reiss

How did you get interested in vaccines?

As a mom and being a nerd, my approach to learning motherhood was to read a lot – books, and also online. I eventually came across an anti-vaccine comment on one of my favorite blogs – Squint Mom – and was very surprised. A student recommend Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus, and I really enjoyed the book – and my take away was that pro-vaccine parents should speak up more. So I went on Facebook and looked for vaccine pages to comment on, and got more involved than I expected.

Question 5 for Professor Reiss

In private conversations, you often mention that you’re not as comfortable with science than many of us. But you are quite conversant in much of vaccine science, how did you educate yourself in it?

Well, I was lucky. I had a lot of people on Facebook willing to patiently answer my many questions. I can’t overstate how much I learned from scientists or science teachers – like Xandy Gilmore or Will Cohen – and lay advocates, like Liz Ditz, Kathy Hennessy and Karen Ernst (and I’m not quite sure which category to put my friend Allison Hagood in).

There were several science-based books written for laypeople that explained the issues. I took a few courses on Coursera. Incredibly valuable were Science Blogs like your blog (the one from the ancient feathered dinosaur), LeftBrainRightBrain, Respectful Insolence and Science-Based Medicine, Aetiology, JusttheVax, and I know I’m leaving many out. On the regulatory framework and history, Amy Pisani knows an amazing amount. I can’t do justice to everyone.

And crucially important was the incredible help I got from Dr. Paul Offit and a few of his colleagues in the Vaccine Education Center. Not just their materials, but they read draft posts and commented on the science, answered many questions in real commenting times – sometimes Dr. Offit would answer within minutes – and provided moral and emotional support. I have met amazing people on this journey. I can’t name them all, but I feel incredibly lucky to have met them.

Question 6 for Professor Reiss

What inspires you to continue fighting for children’s health with vaccines despite some of the personal attacks against you?

It feels good to have a mission, to be speaking up for something important. I have also, again, met amazing people, and it’s just inspiring to be able to help and contribute. There’s also the fact that much of explaining vaccines issues is like teaching, and I love teaching. Finally, to some degree, the pushback motivates me not to give up. I don’t like it when someone tries to intimidate me.

Question 7 for Professor Reiss

I need to ask this since it is an anti-vaccine trope – are you a shill for Big Pharma?

No. When I got into this, I wasn’t even aware we have any stocks. I got into this as a mom. I found out we have stock the first time I gave a talk on vaccines: they had a COI form, and I emailed my husband Fred and asked, “do we have any stock in pharmaceutical companies?” And he said yes, GSK.

So then I knew. Fred handles our stock market, so I don’t really think about the stock we have most of the time – again, I wouldn’t have known we have these unless I asked, and I was already involved then. I don’t honestly see any way my online efforts would make a big difference to GSK’s bottom line – it’s not as if vaccines are their only product, or one person speaking up makes a big difference on those.

There are so many other factors that go into buying vaccines. And if it did have an impact, as you point out, it’s a pretty small amount from our point of view. Further, a lot of my speaking up is related to MMR and HPV, vaccines that in the United States are manufactured by Merck – and for a long time my only connection with Merck was as a customer (i.e., some of the vaccines I or my children got were made by them). Now I’ve met some of their people in conferences and even talked on the phone with some.

Question 8 for Professor Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

Another thing I keep reading is that because you’re not an attorney, but a Professor of Law, you don’t know anything about vaccine law.

In the United States, law professors normally do not practice, and many of them teach in states outside where they went to law school. There is no need or expectation for academics to be licensed lawyers, though some are.

My background is a little different since I never took the bar exam. I came to the United States the day before the bar exam in Israel to do my Ph.D. I could work on taking the bar in California, but it’s a lot of effort, and since it’s not directly relevant to what I do, it’s not a good use of a full summer (which is the minimum it will take).

So I don’t see myself doing that. So no, I’m not a lawyer, I likely won’t be one, and it does not affect my ability to teach or write on legal issues – and it’s quite normal among legal academics to not be practicing lawyers.

Question 9 for Professor Reiss

Are you and your children fully vaccinated according to the CDC schedule?

Actually my children are vaccinated above and beyond the CDC schedule – they each got some extra vaccines.

Obligatory cute cat photo. This is not Professor Reiss’ cat. Photo by Anton Kraev on Unsplash.

Question 10 for Professor Reiss

I know the anti-vaccine tropes about your support of “mandatory vaccination” are rampant these days, but can you give a more nuanced explanation of your views?

This is the ultra-short version. I think it’s legitimate for states to require vaccines for schools without non-medical exemptions because that choice sits at the intersection between the child’s welfare – children are safer vaccinated – and community welfare.

I also think it’s not necessarily the best choice, certainly not for every state, though it’s a legitimate choice and I will defend it if the democratically elected legislature chooses it. In an ideal world, my best choice would be a vaccine mandate with a very narrow, hard to get non-medical exemptions – for example, a week-long course with a test.

But talking to policymakers, my impression is that the problem is that creating and enforcing a narrow enough nonmedical exemption to keep herd immunity is challenging, which is why many states go for something easier to administer – like no non-medical exemptions or no easier to get exemptions.

I think states have a range of options and need to choose what fits them best. I do think very easy-to-get non-medical exemptions are problematic because it attracts anti-vaccine activists to that state and sets the state up for outbreaks when something goes wrong.

Question 11 for Professor Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

What anti-vaccine “argument” annoys you most? What one makes you think, “OK, they might have a tiny point here?”

I think most upsetting to me is “healthy children don’t die from measles/chickenpox/influenza”, which dismisses the victims who did and implies they or their parents are to blame, they were not “healthy enough.”

I think the one that has a point is that both pertussis and influenza vaccines are not as effective as they could be. They’re better than nothing, but they’re not good enough.

Notes

The snarky dinosaur wants to thank Professor Dorit Rubinstein Reiss for taking her time to answer my questions. I actually didn’t know some of these things, but I was disappointed she didn’t command a tank for the IDF.

I plan to do more of these, including one where the dinosaur snarkily interviews himself.

I hope that these interviews are of interest to the reader – please comment on whether you do or don’t enjoy them.



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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!