How Pitt Public Health Swayed Immunization Policy in California

By: Allison Hydzik


Dr. Richard Pan knew he faced an uphill battle last year when his California Senate bill that aimed to ensure more children received immunizations by removing the personal exemption allowance was sent to face three senate committees.

In recounting the story of how the bill was finally passed, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine alumnus who is now a California state senator explained during a visit to his alma mater Sunday that typically, bills face only one committee, maybe two. Certainly not three. But, this one was controversial.

“For lay people, the concept of community immunity – herd immunity – is a hard one,” said Dr. Pan, who serves the Senate district encompassing Sacramento. Dr. Pan spoke at Pitt while in town for the recent Medical Alumni Weekend.

In order to get the bill passed, he had to find a way to help his fellow senators understand why immunizing individual children was good for everyone – and vital to their constituencies. That’s when he discovered FRED Measles.

The simulation – optimized for mobile devices – was recently created by scientists at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. Measles vaccination was on the public’s mind following the Disneyland measles outbreak of early 2015, and with a few clicks, users can see what happens in their cities as measles vaccination rates dip too low.

“I was blown away,” said Dr. Pan. “This was exactly what I was looking for. You’d watch as whole cities just exploded in red [as more and more people contracted measles in the simulation demonstrating suboptimal vaccination rates].”

Dr. Pan showed the simulation to any of his fellow legislators who would watch, asking them if they wanted to be responsible for an explosion of measles in their districts. FRED Measles began swaying votes – one senator even confirmed that it was FRED that persuaded him to vote in favor of the bill.

The tide turned and Senate Bill 277 passed the California Senate and was approved by Gov. Jerry Brown at the end of June last year. California now has one of the most comprehensive and protective school-aged child vaccination policies in the country.

“This story perfectly illustrates how public health research can make a real world impact and save lives,” Pitt Public Health dean Dr. Donald S. Burke told Dr. Pan after he told his story. “It is very encouraging to learn that FRED Measles successfully took the difficult idea of herd immunity and turned it into something anyone could understand.”

Caption: Pictured (R-to-L): John Grefenstette, Donald Burke, Sen. Richard Pan (in a Project Tycho tie), Mark Roberts, Wilbert Van Panhuis, Tenley Brownwright (epidemiology PhD student), Cindy Bryce.