Ashland High School sent a letter to 150 families urging them to vaccinate their children against chicken pox after a student came down with the disease last month.

Ashland High School sent a letter to 150 families urging them to vaccinate their children against chicken pox after a student came down with the disease last month.

Ashland's rate of exemptions from some or all vaccinations is five times higher than the county and state average, said Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County's public health medical officer.

The Feb. 25 letter encouraged the families, whose children had not yet been vaccinated, to get the two shots recommended to ensure full immunity, said Judy Blickenstaff, school district family nurse practitioner.

Blickenstaff said one vaccination provides 72 to 85 percent immunity, while the second shot gives full immunity.

The disease turns up in all Ashland schools every year, said Belinda Brown, nurse for the middle and elementary schools. Afflicted students are required to stay home till sores crust over, about five days.

The vaccines cannot be required if parents sign a religious exemption, which in practice is a philosophical belief "characterized, perhaps, by distrust of the traditional medical establishment and the allopathic belief system," Shames said.

Ashland families have a vaccine exemption rate of 24.4 percent, compared to a county and state rate of 3 to 5 percent, said Shames. Similar pockets of vaccine doubters can be found in the Illinois Valley and Lane County.

Shames said he and his department have conducted much research to learn the concerns of the Ashland community and "the school nurses have done a good job of educating parents and making vaccines available."

"People (who sign exemptions) don't trust the way medical research is being done and feel the big pharmaceutical companies that make vaccines don't have people's best interests at heart. ... Some will partially vaccinate, saying they want this but not that vaccine. They feel they're not safe for their children and they feel well-supported in their research," he said.

Blickenstaff emphasized that chicken pox is not a serious illness and that children who contract it become immune for life. The letters went out in part, she said, because chicken pox has a three-week incubation and parents should be put on alert.

"There's nothing huge going on," she said, but she also cautioned that people who haven't developed immunity to chicken pox can be more susceptible to other serious ailments in later life.

The chicken pox vaccine was introduced in the U.S. in 1995 and has resulted in a 90 percent decline in hospitalizations and deaths from varicella, as the disease is called, according to the Immunization Action Coalition Web site. It recommends two shots, four to eight weeks apart.

All childhood vaccinations are available at the Jackson County Health Department, 1005 E. Main St., daily during normal working hours. They cost $15 for those without insurance and are free to those unable to pay. Call 541-774-8209 for information.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.