New research published in PLOS One has uncovered several demographic and personality characteristics that can predict parents’ hesitancy toward vaccines. Distrust of physicians, heightened sensitivity to disgust, and greater religiosity were among the predictors of parents’ resistance to vaccinating their children.
Undeterred by the vast scientific evidence in favor of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, a growing number of people are voicing their distrust of vaccinations. Vaccine hesitancy has distressing consequences, as evidenced by the increased incidences of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles. As study authors Rebekah Reuben and team say, understanding the profile of anti-vaxxers continues to be paramount, and the coronavirus pandemic has made the issue even more apparent.
While it is commonly suggested that anti-vaccine attitudes stem from a lack of awareness or education, research suggests this is not the case. Studies have shown that providing people with information about vaccines does not lead to greater support for vaccinations and can, in fact, lead to the opposite effect, actually reducing support for vaccines. As Reuben and team say, this finding points strongly to mistrust, rather than misunderstanding, as a key driver for vaccine hesitancy.
The researchers conducted a survey among 484 parents from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The researchers chose to focus on parents given their role in deciding whether or not children get vaccinated. The respondents completed various demographic measures, including political ideology, religiosity, and use of medical services. They also answered several questions addressing their attitudes toward childhood vaccinations.
As expected, trust in medicine was an important factor — the subjects with greater vaccine hesitancy had lower trust in physicians, hospitals, and surgeons. This is an important finding, Reuben and colleagues say, as it suggests that pro-vaccine campaigns that call upon trust in medicine will likely be ineffective.
“For example,” the researchers say, “in 2019 the Ontario Medical Association launched a public education campaign designed to reduce vaccine hesitancy called #AskOntarioDoctors, with taglines such as “Vaccine questions? Ask your doctor–not the internet” (Ontario Medical Association, 2019). Despite being reasonable advice, a different approach may be needed for those whose vaccine hesitancy is linked to a lack of trust in physicians.”
Parents showing a higher sensitivity to disgust were also more vaccine-hesitant. The researchers propose that vaccines may be regarded as a breach of “purity” given that they include unnatural toxins. They suggest that pro-vaccine campaigns can make use of this sensitivity to disgust to promote the use of vaccines. “By utilizing disgust-inducing stories and pictures to demonstrate the risks of not vaccinating,” — such as images of children with measles and rubella, as employed in a previous study — “vaccine hesitant parents with higher disgust sensitivity may instead be more inclined to vaccinate their children.” This recommendation also falls in line with studies showing that storytelling is highly instrumental in shaping beliefs about vaccines.
When it came to demographics, younger age, lower education, and higher religiosity were all related to a greater hesitancy toward vaccines. As Reuben and colleagues point out, these findings are not surprising. Younger parents are more inclined to use the internet to look up parenting advice, putting them at greater risk of encountering misinformation about vaccines. Similarly, those with a lower education likely lack online health literacy and may have greater difficulty deciphering between reliable and unreliable sources of information about vaccines. Finally, as certain religious groups condemn the use of vaccines, it stands to reason that religiosity would predict vaccine hesitancy.
The study was limited since it did not assess behavioral outcomes related to vaccines, only vaccine hesitancy. Still, the findings offer insight into the profiles of people who distrust vaccines, presenting a potential direction for public health campaigns aimed at boosting support for vaccines.
The study, “Mistrust of the medical profession and higher disgust sensitivity predict parental vaccine hesitancy,” was authored by Rebekah Reuben, Devon Aitken, Jonathan L. Freedman, and Gillian Einstein.