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Golden says he's no anti-vaxxer

State Sen. Jeff Golden has tapped a groundswell of support along with a firestorm of criticism after speaking out against a proposed law that would force parents to immunize their child before enrolling in public schools, but he says he's no anti-vaxxer.

In the days since the Ashland Democrat joined a handful of Republican lawmakers Thursday in speaking out against House Bill 3063 in Salem, a proposed law that would no longer allow parental exemptions for vaccinations, Golden said reaction from his constituents has been "very mixed" -- consisting of "a lot of praise and a lot of criticism."

Golden testified Thursday at the House Health Care subcommittee about his "concern for the significant number of children with vaccine injuries," joining Republican state Sens. Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls and Kim Thatcher of Keizer in their opposition of the legislation.

Golden said Saturday that he vaccinated his own now-grown children when they were in public school, and that he doesn’t know anyone who’s opposed to vaccinating against diseases such as polio or smallpox.

Most vaccination skeptics he knows would not label themselves “anti-vaxxers,” Golden said.

“I’m arguing more than anything else for a balanced conversation,” Golden said. “Let’s not divide ourselves between ‘anti-vax’ and ‘every-vaccination-is-great’ camps.”

Golden said he’s critical of the “all-or-nothing” tone that the debate surrounding vaccinations has taken, particularly in the wake of a measles outbreak in the Portland metropolitan area and portions of Washington state.

Golden called it a “huge jump” to go from six dozen measles cases near Portland to a law that requires all parents to “submit to a growing list of vaccinations.”

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, who’s behind the bill, disagreed, saying the measles outbreak should prompt lawmakers to act where they have failed in the past.

“It’s not a theoretical discussion anymore. It’s a very practical discussion,” he said. “We’re talking about a real example of what happens if no one vaccinates their kids.”

Clark County confirmed two more cases Saturday, bringing the total number of people diagnosed with measles in Oregon and Washington to 75. Most of them were unvaccinated children, health officials said.

Jackson County Health and Human Services medical director Dr. Jim Shames said the number of required vaccinations has increased over the years, but the vaccination schedule developed by a panel of experts with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “wasn’t arbitrarily arrived at.”

“The vaccines that we’re offering to children are safe,” Shames said, emphasizing that the measles vaccination at the heart of the Portland area public health crisis is “proven.”

Shames said the CDC panel can spend years looking at how a vaccine affects antibodies before recommending it to public health officials.

“It’s done thoughtfully with many variables taken into consideration,” Shames said.

Although Shames stands by the safety and efficacy of the vaccination schedule, he said he believes a mandate such as HB 3063 could lead to unintended consequences.

“We need to pay attention to the consequences that occur when you take parent choice away,” Shames said.

For instance, after California passed a mandate in the wake of a 2014 Disneyland measles outbreak, the state’s medical exemptions more than doubled, according to a 2017 LA Times report.

“I see that as an unintended consequence,” Shames said.

Shames said many parents are “on the fence” about vaccinations, so he tries to reassure them.

“For those folks I want to make sure we have every opportunity to see the advantage for themselves and for the greater community,” he said.

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, didn’t testify at the House Health Care subcommittee in Salem, but said she believes mandating parents to vaccinate their children is a “very serious step to take.”

Marsh said she “didn’t think twice” about vaccinating her own children and believes in herd immunity, but said many parents who eschew vaccinations for their children do so because they are highly suspicious of the government.

“I don’t think it’s a good time for us to reinforce those suspicions by mandating behaviors on parents,” Marsh said.

Marsh said the bill as currently written could have unintended cultural or economic ramifications.

If the bill were to pass, Marsh imagines many parents would resort to homeschooling or private school, building a “cultural divide” in which parents with means send their children to private school and others homeschool children rather than complying with the state mandate.

She believes “proactive solutions” such as public education that addresses parents’ concerns are a better approach.

“I do believe in vaccinations and what they stand for, but I think the government has to be careful about forcing parents to make a choice they don’t believe in,” Marsh said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Jeff Golden opposes a bill that would disqualify personal exemptions from vaccinations, but says he's not an anti-vaxxer.