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.
"I get the public health standpoint," she said. "I am still questioning (vaccines') safety."
Nationally, there is a budding movement of parents who 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, both sites with more mainstream views about vaccines.
But Ashland stands apart from the mainstream.
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.
Town has one of highest rates for unvaccinated kids
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. It has serious debates about whether to cut down trees to expand the library or whether to allow a woman to ride her bicycle naked in the Fourth of July parade.
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, which can be devastating to babies, 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.
Shames has been working with nursing students from Oregon Health & Science University on a pamphlet that would promote immunization.
Autism fear is biggest issue
While doing interviews for that pamphlet, nursing student Shauna Gargus, who had her own two kids vaccinated, found many parents distrust mainstream medicine. They tend to believe their friends rather than medical research. Their biggest single fear is that the shot for measles, mumps and rubella could cause their children to become autistic, despite solid scientific studies that show no evidence of that.
"The fear is real for parents, and it overshadows the research," she said. "This is my hometown. This is where I grew up. I care about the community here. I just really would like to not make this a browbeating issue."
Harding is suspicious of the need to inject so many vaccines into small children. She stopped vaccinating her son, Frank, after his first shot as a baby triggered hours of crying. Her daughter, Stella, got a tetanus shot, but that is all.
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.
Jennifer Margulis moved here with her husband and three kids from Massachusetts, where her mother is a cellular biologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences. Though she chuckles at some of Ashland's personality quirks, she embraces the city's strong sense of community and many people's distrust of mainstream medicine.
"I never questioned the efficacy or intelligence of doing vaccines until I was in the hospital with my newborn daughter and a doctor tried to get me to give her hepatitis B vaccine," she said. "Hepatitis B is a sexually transmitted disease. I knew I didn't have hepatitis B. I knew my husband didn't have it. I knew there was no way she would come in contact with anyone with hepatitis B.
"You have this tiny, frog-like baby and they want to shoot her up with things."
Afterward, Margulis' pediatrician supported her choice. "I decided it was my responsibility as a parent to research each and every vaccine to make an informed, intelligent decision, not to just follow what doctors told me," she said.