Whenever I talk about my research on how parents come to decide to reject vaccines for their children, my explanations are met with a range of reactions, but I almost always hear the same questions.
What is wrong with those parents? Are they anti-science? Are they anti-expert? Are they simply ignorant or selfish? Are they crazy?
The year is not half over, and the number of measles cases has now exceeded highs not seen since the U.S. was declared measles-free in 2000. Given the indisputably large role unvaccinated individuals are playing in it, parents who reject vaccines are increasingly vilified. Some people call to have these parents arrested or punished. Many are asking states to tighten laws that make exemptions to school enrollment without vaccines too easy.
Others dismiss these “Whole Foods moms” as harming others and call for them to be socially ostracized.
As a sociologist, I have spent most of a decade talking to parents, pediatricians, policymakers, lawyers and scientists to understand competing views of vaccines. In my research, I find that parents who reject vaccines – by which I mean mostly mothers – work hard to make what they see as an informed decision to do what they think is best for their children. They also want to make a decision that best aligns with their belief system.
Experts, at least of their own kids
Many “anti-vax” parents see themselves as experts on their own children, as best able to decide what their children need and whether their child needs a particular vaccine, and better qualified than health experts or public health agencies to decide what is best for their family.
These decisions are inarguably not in the best interests of the community and indisputably increase risk to others who may be the most vulnerable to the worst outcomes of infection. And although no one can predict how someone will respond to measles infection, children under age five and adults over 20 are most likely to suffer the most serious complications.
The parents who choose to reject vaccines introduce risk to many, including their own children and others. This makes it easy for many people to see them with contempt.
Yet, their decisions also provide an opportunity for all of us to consider how we all may make choices that align with our own goals, but risk the health, and lives, of those in our communities.
Exhibit A: Flu shots
Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley
“I totally believe in vaccines. I just don’t get flu shots.”
I hear statements like this all the time from people who consider themselves committed to vaccines and public health. Their statement is not surprising since fewer than 45% of Americans, and fewer than 37% of adults 18-64 without a high-risk health condition, get a flu shot despite recommendations that almost everyone over six months of age should.
Influenza causes more deaths than any other vaccine-preventable disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the 2018-2019 season, between 36,400 and 61,200 people died from influenza, of which 109 were children.