Walker Elementary School has the highest percentage of immunization exemptions in the Ashland School District.

Ashland School District's immunization rate decreased this year, after more parents opted to exempt their children from standard vaccinations.

About 24 percent of the district's students are exempt from one or more immunizations this year, an increase of 2 percentage points over last year.

"It concerns me that we're letting our guard down and that none of these diseases are absent," said Dr. Jim Shames, medical director for Jackson County Health and Human Services. "Chances are, if we have enough unimmunized kids, the diseases could spread in our community."

Parents were required to turn in exemption or proof-of-vaccination forms by Tuesday. Eight students, all in elementary school, whose parents failed to turn in either set of forms were not allowed to attend school Wednesday.

Belinda Brown, a nurse at Ashland middle and elementary schools, said she expects the students will be able to return to school later this week, after their parents have completed the necessary paperwork.

For the last two years, the district has had one of the lowest immunization rates per student in Oregon, Shames said. About 22 percent of the district's students were exempt from immunizations in 2009 and 2008.

Immunization rates at private schools in Ashland were even lower than those at public schools, according to health department data. At the Siskiyou School, 69 percent of students were exempted from one or more immunizations in 2009. This year, 64 percent of the school's 152 students were exempted from one or more immunizations.

Parents can exempt their children from immunizations for religious, personal or philosophical beliefs, Brown said.

"The primary reason (parents cite) is the safety concern," she said. "Secondarily, some parents just feel like they don't want to do such a high number of vaccines, so oftentimes parents will kind of do their own scheduling and do it selectively."

Ashland resident Toni DiLeo, whose son attends Ashland High School, said she signed an exemption form because she wanted to vaccinate her son selectively, instead of adhering to the state's guidelines.

"We're concerned about some of the health effects of some of the vaccines, and we're not sure all of them are necessary," she said.

DiLeo attended a meeting organized by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held in Ashland last year and later went to Washington, D.C., to speak before the CDC's Vaccine Safety Working Group.

The CDC chose to study Ashland and two other communities where immunization rates are low.

Shames is helping the national health organization filter through the data gathered in Ashland, in order to focus the CDC's work on vaccines, he said.

"I think the bottom line is, what do people want the CDC to focus on in research, in terms of vaccine safety?" he said.

Ashland will be featured in a "Frontline" episode airing in April on PBS about the controversy surrounding vaccines, Shames said.

Immunization rates in the district vary by school. The district's two alternative-learning schools, Willow Wind Community Learning Center and John Muir School, both have high exemption rates this year, at 58 percent and 56 percent, respectively.

Walker Elementary School has a significantly higher exemption rate than the other traditional elementary schools in the district. Walker's exemption rate is 27 percent this year, compared to 17 percent at Bellview and 14 percent at Helman elementary schools.

Brown said it's unclear why Walker's exemption rate is higher.

"I don't know the answer to that one," she said. "We've done informational sessions and had discussions for parents throughout the district."

Ashland High School has an exemption rate of 21 percent, slightly higher than Ashland Middle School's 18 percent.

Although district health officials recommend parents vaccinate their children, it's important that parents make the decision themselves, Brown said.

"I do strongly believe that everybody's making the decision that they feel is best for their children, so I think we need to respect that," she said.

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.