Marcos Bretón

Opinion: Shouts of vaccine opponents drown out rational arguments

It’s a shouting match dominated with bullies who make threats, scream about personal beliefs and fill your voice mail with angry phone calls.

Richard Pan – the Sacramento state senator and doctor – is getting a steady dose of such vitriol amid the hottest political fight in California. He strikes a solitary figure in sensible glasses as he gets pummeled every day in the public square.

Pan has people on his side in the fight to immunize as many children against measles and other infectious diseases as possible. But Pan’s support is expressed rationally, scientifically.

His bill, SB 277, would eliminate personal-belief exemptions that allow parents to avoid vaccinating their children, and would require that children be vaccinated before attending private or public schools. Supporters include the state PTA, California public health officers, the California Medical Association and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The counties of Yolo, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Marin and Los Angeles support this bill, as do the Pasadena Public Health Department, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the American Nurses Association and the San Francisco Unified School District.

There are many more, but you get the point.

None of these groups has demonstrated support by invoking the Holocaust or their “God-given” rights. It doesn’t appear that any of Pan’s supporters have threatened people on the other side. But Pan requires extra security now thanks to threats against him as he lobbies for 277 while it teeters on the verge of being shot down by irrational fears about vaccinations.

Pan’s fellow legislators have begun to buckle. Suddenly, it’s about making sure that those who object to immunizations are not barred from public education.

If that becomes the excuse to undermine the undeniable science that children should be vaccinated to prevent the spread of disease, then it would be refreshing to hear legislators admit that they caved because they were scared.

A myth debunked by science – that vaccines cause autism – has already killed attempts to bolster vaccinations in Oregon and Washington.

“Members just received a lot of calls and emails from the public – some were their constituents and some were from all over the state and the country – just very adamant that they didn’t like it,” said Washington state Rep. June Robinson, a Democrat, to Jeremy B. White of The Sacramento Bee. “I think it changed the vote, quite frankly, for some members who thought they would vote for it and changed their mind. I think people were swayed by the constant barrage of communication.”

What kind of communication?

“They tend to bully, use hyperbolic language,” Pan said. “They’ll call and call and call. Some guy from Texas keeps calling us.”

One Facebook posting compared Pan to a Nazi; another suggested he should be hung with a noose.

Who could forget Robert Kennedy Jr. comparing the rise in autism – which he blames on vaccines – to a holocaust during a speech at the state Capitol?

Kennedy apologized, but the tone has been set. A 1997 British study that linked vaccinations and autism has long been debunked by the scientific community, which finds no link at all. The idea nonetheless persists.

Many people spoke against SB 277 at the Capitol last week. Their reasons were often steeped in fear or in the idea that they could hold themselves separate from a broader community.

The issue that may scuttle SB 277 is the prospect, as expressed by some legislators, that kids would be forced into inadequate home schooling if their parents or guardians refused to immunize them. If a workable compromise can’t be reached – if a mob mentality scares enough legislators to embrace a no vote as an opposed to a compromise – then those who shout the loudest will have won.

There are reasonable people in Sacramento who feel Pan is orchestrating a self-serving overreach. The most recent – and highly publicized measles outbreak – wasn’t at a school but at Disneyland. So why dictate that school kids only gain admission to schools by getting vaccinations first?

Those who ask that question aren’t paying attention.

After being on the wane a decade ago, measles is coming back. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, measles exploded with 668 cases in the U.S. in 2014. There have been more than 150 so far in 2015, according to the CDC. Most of these are in California. Most of them occurred in people who had not been vaccinated.

It’s not just measles. The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that clusters of unvaccinated people were one of several factors that led to the worst outbreak of whooping cough in California in 2010 – worse than any year since 1947.

“Why do we have to wait for someone to die?” Pan said on Friday. “One in five people who contract measles are hospitalized. This is not a benign disease.”

Pan said he is drawing a line at schools because it is where children cross paths and if you are allowing the pool of unvaccinated children to grow, you are creating more chances for more outbreaks among the unvaccinated.

“If you have a baby under the age of 1, that child cannot be immunized,” Pan said. “If your child has cancer or lupus, that child cannot be immunized. These are people that depend on everyone else being (immunized).”

In some respects, Pan knows he being outgunned by strident voices citing anecdotal evidence that vaccines are dangerous. Pan is appealing to supporters to speak up for increased vaccinations. But supporters of SB 277 are not vehement – and vehemence is carrying the day.

“We need to protect all children; that’s what this is about,” Pan said. “God help us if someone gets permanent disability or dies because a minority made choices based on misinformation. Shame on us.”

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

  Comments