Ashland parents debated with public health officials about the efficacy and potential dangers of vaccines Tuesday night at a meeting at Helman Elementary School, where about 18 percent of students haven't received all of their immunizations.

Ashland parents debated with public health officials about the efficacy and potential dangers of vaccines Tuesday night at a meeting at Helman Elementary School, where about 18 percent of students haven't received all of their immunizations.

Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County's medical director for health and human services, told the dozen parents gathered in the school library that he believes vaccines are safe and beneficial to protect children from harmful diseases, such as measles and whooping cough.

"I'm confident they're safe," he said. "I think we forget, especially because we have such a lower burden of these diseases than we used to and because we also have some sophisticated medicine, how bad these illnesses can be."

But several parents in the audience said they believe many of the vaccines commonly given to children are unnecessary and may be harmful.

"We keep adding vaccines for illnesses that, to me, don't seem life threatening, such as chicken pox," said Anna Houppermans, who has two children at Helman. "It's an assault on the system."

The forum was the first in a series designed to reach out to parents who have questions about immunizations and their possible risks.

Ashland School District's nonvaccination rate continued to increase this year, with about 25 percent of students opting out of some or all immunizations, Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said at the meeting. At the district's two alternative schools, Willow Wind Community Learning Center and John Muir School, more than 50 percent of students don't have all their vaccinations, she said.

Parents can sign a religious exemption form to opt their children out of otherwise required immunizations.

"It does concern me," Di Chiro said. "If there were to be an outbreak of measles, we might need to close down schools for several weeks."

Ashland is vulnerable to an outbreak of a disease such as measles because of the large number of people who aren't vaccinated against the disease and also because of the high rate of tourism, due to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the city's position on the Interstate-5 corridor, she said.

Several parents at the meeting said they have given their children only certain vaccines and not on the timetable that public health officials recommend, something that is common in Ashland, said Dr. Bonnie Nedrow, a naturopathic physician, who spoke alongside Shames.

Nedrow said she is "pro-choice" when it comes to vaccines, but it's important for parents to be knowledgeable about diseases they choose not to vaccinate their children against.

"For my families who choose not to vaccinate, I have a pretty lengthy conversation about, if you choose not to do this, then you need to do this, which includes herbs and homeopathy," she said.

Helman parent John Williams asked the doctors whether they believed there was a link between vaccines and autism.

"It's probably the number one thing I hear parents here talking about, so it's still very much in the public mind," he said.

Shames said he believes a number of studies have shown that vaccines do not cause autism. Nedrow said she believes toxins in the environment may play a role in the disease, and it's too soon to tell whether vaccines may be related.

The unusual pairing of doctors on the panel is designed to reach out to parents who might otherwise be untrusting of the medical community, Shames said.

Shames, Nedrow and Belle Shepherd, Jackson County's program manager for public health, form the Ashland Immunization Outreach Team, which aims to hold meetings at all of the city's public schools in the coming months.

Ashland's low vaccination rate is most concerning because of its potential effect on people with poor immune systems, including infants, Shames said.

Nikki Dinger, who is pregnant, attended the meeting to try to figure out which vaccines she should give her future child, she said.

"We want to delay some of the vaccines, but our child's going to be in daycare and we know that Ashland is a hotbed of not vaccinating, so other parents will be putting our child at risk," she said.

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.