The California senator fighting for the strictest vaccination laws in the US
Richard Pan has faced death threats and harassment from anti-vaxxers but says in an interview: ‘Science is true, whether they believe it or not’
The Facebook video shows Richard Pan smiling amiably in the moments before the anti-vaccine activist badgering him on a street near the California state capitol shoves him from behind.
The assault, livestreamed on the social media platform last week, was the culmination of years of harassment and violent rhetoric directed toward the state lawmaker. Pan’s career milestone is authoring one of the toughest pro-vaccination laws in the United States and his new bill seeking to close a loophole in that measure will be voted on this week.
“We talk about the four horsemen of the apocalypse: death, war, famine, plague and disease. Yet people don’t really believe in infectious disease anymore, and that’s foolish,” Pan told the Guardian. “If we don’t maintain our community immunity, our shield against these diseases, they will come back.”
Diseases like measles are making a comeback in the United States. A series of outbreaks across New York, California and Washington in 2019 contributed to a record year for measles with 1,077 cases. In Europe, measles are at a 20-year high, with more than 60,000 cases and 72 deaths reported in 2018.
Vaccinations became Pan’s main issue soon after he was elected to the California legislature in 2010 to represent Sacramento.
Pan, a trained pediatrician who continued practicing medicine even after he took office, introduced his first bill on vaccinations in 2012 – a requirement that parents seeking immunization exemptions for their children first receive information about vaccinations from a licensed healthcare provider.
There are no federal or state laws mandating vaccination, but certain vaccinations are required for children entering public schools. Depending on the state, parents can bypass these vaccination requirements for their children by getting an exemption, whether for medical reasons or for personal beliefs.
California, in particular, had notoriously loose rules around personal belief exemptions. “In California, all you had to say was ‘I don’t want to get my kid vaccinated’ and it was done,” Pan said.
Three years later, after a serious measles outbreak at Disneyland, Pan took legislation a step further. Now an elected state senator, he sought to get rid of personal belief exemptions altogether and allow for only medical exemptions.
The response from the anti-vaxxer community was swift, and terrifying. They packed hearing after hearing, some comparing Pan to Hitler or telling him he was violating the Nuremberg laws. They demonstrated outside the state capitol. On Facebook and online forums, they proliferated conspiracy theories and posted racist, violent rhetoric about how he needed to be hanged for treason.
“He’s had death threats,” said Leah Russin, the executive director of Vaccinate California, which has worked with Pan on legislation. “He’s had people making harassing phone calls not just to his practice, but his wife’s practice.”
But still, the law passed.
Pan has faced the threats and insults patiently. “Some of these people wear T-shirts that have an image of his face covered in blood splatter,” Russin said. “Some of these people have harassed him at events around town. At hearings, they are feet away from him at the microphone and he stands for the entire testimony and he just listens.”
And ever a man of science, his interactions with the anti-vaccine movement have left Pan with some vital lessons.
There are the anti-vaccine leaders, who may truly believe the misinformation that they spread – there’s no arguing with them, Pan concluded. Then, Pan said, there are the parents who have been deceived into believing that their children developed disabilities or autism because of vaccines. “Anti-vaxxers who have misled them have turned them against their own children,” he said.
Pan knows there are some in the anti-vaccine movement he’ll never win over. “You can listen,” he said. “You respond with the factual information. They don’t accept that. They’re not going to change their minds. The more important thing is communicating to people who genuinely want to understand the issue the reasons why we’re doing the policies that we’re doing and debunking the misinformation that is being put out there. And, most importantly, we need to reach out the parents who have been misled and share with them accurate information.”
It’s these lessons that Pan brings with him as he seeks to pass yet another vaccination bill, this time closing a loophole from his 2015 legislation. Following the banning of personal belief exemptions, medical exemptions began to increase. Pan suspected some improper doctoring – a Voice of San Diego investigation found one doctor responsible for a third of all medical exemptions in San Diego. The bill, which is scheduled for action on Friday, seeks to create a standardized statewide medical exemption request.
“Sometimes when you’re doing legislation, there’s a temptation just to get in and get out, to pass a hard bill, take the heat, and say, ‘I’m done with that I’m not doing it again’,” said the state senator Scott Wiener, who co-authored the bill. “But there are times when you take a hard issue and you have to go back one, two, even three times to address unforeseen circumstances to close loopholes.
“(Pan) saw there were physicians issuing fake exemptions,” Wiener continued. “He went into it knowing it wouldn’t be easy and that the anti-vaxxers would once again target him and demonize him and harass him. But he cares about the health of the kids and he took it on. I really respect that.”
As a doctor and a father of two boys, Pan believes it’s a battle worth fighting.
Pan’s medical training had a unique effect on his perspective. The son of Taiwanese immigrants, he earned his bachelor’s degree at Johns Hopkins University and went to medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, where Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine. He studied under Julius Youngner, who worked with Salk.
“I remembered we talked about how because of vaccines, some of these diseases, we would never see again in our careers as physicians,” Pan said. “Yet at the same time, in my senior year, in 1991, I was doing a rotation in Philadelphia with the US public health service, and there was a measles outbreak. We had nine children die.”
The experience left a lasting impression. “As a doctor, you’re educated, you studied it. But the firsthand experience of seeing the spread of a vaccine-preventable disease and seeing children sick and hospitalized, I don’t think you need any more motivation than that.”
Pan earned a masters in public health at Harvard and moved to Sacramento, where he became the director of the pediatric residency program at UC Davis before running for the legislature.
He ran for state assembly in 2010, hoping to bring a broader perspective to public health. “I wanted to run for office and solve some problems,” he said. “I don’t think I was ever thinking about passing a vaccine bill while I was campaigning.”
In trying to reason with conspiracy theorists, Pan says he now sometimes sees himself in the role of Cassandra in Greek mythology.
“She could see the future, but nobody would listen to her,” he said. “There’s frustration. Science is true, whether they believe it or not. We know what’s going to happen. We don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen. We try to shout it from the rooftops. But now that I’m a legislator, I am listening. I can do something about it.”