Jackson County's medical director says a survey approved Wednesday will help health officials learn the best way to educate Ashland parents on vaccinations so they can make informed decisions about immunizing their children.

Jackson County's medical director says a survey approved Wednesday will help health officials learn the best way to educate Ashland parents on vaccinations so they can make informed decisions about immunizing their children.

Ashland has the highest nonvaccination rate in the state, with 25 percent of schoolchildren opting out of some or all required immunizations.

"The study's just part of a larger piece of work," said Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County Health and Human Services medical director. "We're hoping to inform ourselves and inform the community on what the issues are. To be well-informed, you really need to hear the public health side of the story."

The Southern Oregon University Research Center will conduct the study, using interviews and other data to determine why some Ashland parents are reluctant to vaccinate their children.

The Jackson County commissioners approved spending $10,000 out of the Health and Human Services budget for the study during their Wednesday meeting. It is to be completed by June 2013.

"I think this'll give us a lot of valuable information," said Commissioner John Rachor.

County health officials said it's a step in ensuring that parents have the most accurate information about vaccinations. Of the 3,117 students enrolled in both private and public Ashland schools, 777 did not receive all their vaccinations on the grounds of religious exemption in 2010, the highest rate reported in Oregon.

"We're not picking on Ashland by any stretch of the imagination," said Commissioner Don Skundrick, adding the study is not meant to force parents to get the vaccines.

Parents who did not wish to have their children vaccinated cited a number of concerns in forums put on by the Ashland Immunization Outreach Team earlier this year. Some said vaccinations for diseases such as polio and measles are given too early and that they temper the body's natural immune system.

Others said immunizations can lead to other medical problems. A 1990s study claimed the measles vaccine caused autism in children, but several medical studies since then have refuted it.

"You could go back centuries and look at vaccine resistance," Shames said. "People are concerned about putting substances into their body, and they have been forever."

Vaccination proponents say failing to immunize against contagious diseases not only endangers children but leaves communities vulnerable to outbreaks.

Ryan Pfeil is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.