Ashland, Ore. There are so many parents in this free-spirited, unconventional small town who won’t get their kids vaccinated that federal researchers are paying money just to hear their side of things.
On Saturday, 80 locals will get $50 apiece to talk about their worries over the risks of childhood shots.
“One of the basic tenets of my decision-making is mistrust of the government, a mistrust of the pharmaceutical companies, and mistrust of the big blanket thing that says this is what everybody has to do,” says Tracy Harding, an organic farming consultant and mother of two.
Nationally, a budding movement of parents are getting exemptions from laws requiring children to get vaccinated before attending school. The exemptions are one explanation the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives for a spike in measles cases. The government recommends as many as 10 vaccines before a child is 6, plus boosters along the way.
Dr. Ben Schwartz, an adviser to the National Vaccine Program, said the meeting in Ashland is one of three where the government is paying average citizens to give their views to inform officials charting the direction of vaccine research for the next five years. A similar meeting was held in Birmingham, Ala., and another is set for Indianapolis.
Ashland, the town of 20,000 on the flanks of the Siskiyou Mountains in southwestern Oregon, has always been different. In the early 20th century, it was on the Chautauqua lecture circuit, and the sulfurous waters of Lithia Springs drew visitors looking for a cure for what ailed them.
Today, it has one of the highest rates in the nation for vaccine exemptions — 28 percent and rising in kindergartens, compared with about 4 percent statewide. One alternative school has 67 percent.
A liberal outpost in a conservative region, Ashland likes to go its own way. The city has its own water and electric utilities, and was a pioneer promoting solar energy, high-speed Internet, and dog parks.
For years, Dr. Jim Shames, a physician who prefers a down vest to a lab coat, has argued the benefits of vaccines with Harding, his next-door neighbor.
As Jackson County’s chief medical officer, Shames would like every child immunized. Ashland always has some whooping cough around, but has seen no spike in measles. Still, Shames fears the community is vulnerable because so many international visitors come to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Southern Oregon University.
Until now, Tyre Dawn has depended on organic food and plenty of playtime outdoors to keep her 4-year-old son, Lukyan, healthy. But she is planning to open a preschool in the spring, and with so many children around, she is now rethinking her policy.
“It is essential in these times for everyone to look more closely at the choices they are making,” she said.