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Sickened by House vaccination bill

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Some 200 vocal anti-vaxxers packed Ashland’s Plaza Friday, chanting “kill the bill” and vowing to pull their children out of schools if the Legislature passes a bill banning exemptions for philosophical or religious reasons.

House Bill 3063 passed 35-25 Monday and is headed to the Senate. Gov. Kate Brown has said she will sign the bill if it clears the last hurdle.

Families could claim only medical exemptions to vaccines under the bill. Unvaccinated children would still be able to attend online and home school, but they could not go to in-person, school-related activities. Lawmakers amended the bill to make it easier for parents to seek medical exemptions.

Plaza speakers said the bill, which would make Oregon’s vaccine laws among the most stringent in the nation, would impinge on parental rights and would bar unvaccinated or under-vaccinated children from even sporting and musical events at schools, thus “segregating” students.

Health officials point out this year has been the worst for U.S. measles outbreaks in over two decades. An outbreak that began in Clark County in January sickened at least 77 people before it was declared over at the end of April.

Speakers against the bill Friday included naturopaths and chiropractors who urged people not to believe statements about the harmlessness of vaccines, saying they’ve treated ill effects and much study is needed to understand side effects.

“I’m passionate about this. It’s a sad day when politicians create something to take away our innate health,” said chiropractor Kacie Flegal, to much hooting and applause. “I’ve seen many vaccine-injured people. This bill is a slippery slope. Soon they can take away our plant-based medicines. Our bodies are healthy when we take care of them. No one dies in a measles outbreak. It’s government overreach.”

Naturopath Chris Chlebowski of Ashland said the bill is a “reckless disregard” and may “push us out of schools, but I see it as a gift. We will educate our children in our backyards and living rooms so they become independent, free-thinking people who will make their own medicines, grow their own food and learn the true history of our country.”

Taking away personal and religious exemptions from vaccines is not about safety, but about money for pharmaceutical companies, he said, and “pushing the drug company agenda.”

Michael Forney, the father of 9- and 10-year-olds, said the bill is “one size fits all, and I don’t believe in the safety of the vaccines and I’m not willing to subject my children to them.”

Gwendolyn Terra said the bill “feels like an act of coercion. The state says what medicines we take and when. I will pull my daughter, a sophomore, out of school. I won’t give her 22 shots so she can get her education. She will miss her senior year and can only get it online.”

Nitia Wheeler said, “If there’s a risk, there must be a choice. I stand my ground. I don’t want something going in my daughter’s body that she isn’t personally educated about and chooses. We need more research about what’s in vaccines.”

Speaker Rick Kirschner, a retired naturopath, said, “Mandatory vaccinations are so immoral, egregious and fundamentally wrong, and it’s happening across the country. It’s a full-court press by the pharma industry, a sweetheart deal for the medical industry and a horrible deal for Oregon. What kind of legislator segregates 30,000 kids out of school and pushes them in isolation, where drug use and suicide go up?”

A second protest was planned later Friday at Vogel Plaza in Medford. Both were led by Southern Oregonians for Medical Freedom.

In the Southern Oregon delegation, Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford voted for the bill, and Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, voted against it. Marsh was quoted by Oregon Public Broadcasting as saying, “I believe in the science behind vaccines, and I believe in the importance of community immunity. What we are experiencing on the ground is an outbreak of measles. If this were a mandate of the [measles] vaccine I would support it. HB 3063 goes well beyond that.”

Wallan, in a phone interview, said the bill is “good policy,” and her Medford district, unlike Ashland, has high vaccination rates.

She said she’s “very pro-liberty” and philosophically against imposing government on people, so she wishes everyone would resolve the issue by getting shots on their own.

“I hope it’s done before there’s a serious outbreak. It was a gut-wrenching decision, very difficult, because so many were at the Capitol worried about parental rights and reducing freedoms.”

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, who will soon vote on the bill, said it is in “active conversation” in the Senate and he can’t support it in its current form.

Demonstrators’ signs said, “Oppressive laws make discontented people,” “Educate, don’t mandate,” “No medical fascism,” “Forced vaccination = death to freedom.” The crowd chanted, “My body, my choice.”

Vaccines are “one of the most significant health advances ever,” said Jackson County Health Officer Jim Shames. “If you think about what used to maim and kill children 100 years ago — polio, smallpox, diphtheria and, at the start of this century in the U.S., measles. It’s remarkable how we’ve improved the quality of life for children, also adults.”

Shames said any technology brings side effects, but “when you compare the potential harm of the diseases, it’s pretty minor.”

If the bill becomes law, Shames said, “it will marginalize the hardcore folks who have a belief system that says vaccines are extremely dangerous and no way are they giving them to their children.

“I completely disagree with that. I don’t look forward to marginalizing and criminalizing a significant number of our citizens. I want them to be in mainstream society. They’re going to push back very, very hard to look for medical exemptions which, in reality, are few. There will be pressure on the medical system because it will be the only escape valve.”

Oregon has the highest percentage of kindergartners exempted from at least one vaccine — and Ashland has the highest exemption rate in the state, according to ashlandchild.org. Ashland elementary schools range from 42 to 82 percent of students who’ve had all immunizations for their grade level. Middle and high schools are in the mid-70s. About 93 to 95 percent coverage is required to prevent outbreak of most diseases, the website says.

The site is sponsored by Ashland School District, Jackson County Health & Human Services, Health Care Coalition of Southern Oregon, Asante Ashland Community Hospital and others. It contains many cautionary parent stories.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Opponents of Oregon House Bill 3063 and their children rally on the Ashland Plaza Friday morning.{ }Jamie Lusch / Ashland Tidings
Opponents of Oregon House Bill 3063 and their children rally on the Ashland Plaza Friday morning. The bill, which would close loopholes in the state's vaccination law, has passed the House but awaits a vote in the Senate.{ } Jamie Lusch / Ashland Tidings