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USA: The moral differences between pro- and anti-vaccine parents

10 Dec, 2017
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When it comes to persuading parents in the United States who are hesitant about vaccinating their children, the public health messages often rely on facts and science to explain how immunization not only protects those children but also shields other vulnerable people from dangerous infectious diseases.

But information campaigns that emphasize fairness or preventing harm sometimes backfire and can worsen vaccine hesitancy, research has shown. A study published Monday in Nature Human Behaviour suggests a more effective way to reach vaccine-hesitant parents may be to focus on two potentially powerful moral values that underlie people’s attitudes and judgments: individual liberty and purity.

Compared with parents who approve of vaccines, parents who are most reluctant to vaccinate are strongly concerned with liberty and purity, the researchers found. In this framework, liberty is associated with belief in personal responsibility, freedom, property rights and resistance to state involvement in citizens’ lives. Concerns about purity center on boundaries and protection from contamination.

Although the vast majority of parents across the country vaccinate their children and follow recommended schedules for this basic preventive-medicine practice, vaccine skepticism and outright refusal in recent years have led to places where there are communities of undervaccinated childrenwho are more susceptible to disease and pose health risks to the broader public.

Minnesota’s measles outbreak in the spring sickened 79 people and exposed 8,000 to the virus, including more than 500 people who were asked to stay home from school, child care or work because they were unvaccinated and at risk of contracting and spreading the disease.

The new study used a social psychology theory known as Moral Foundations Theory to assess the underlying moral values most strongly associated with vaccine-hesitant parents. Their findings correspond with the reasons many vaccine-hesitant parents give for delaying or refusing some vaccines, and with many of the claims on anti-vaccination websites.

A main message of one of the most organized and politically active anti-vaccine groups, Texans for Vaccine Choice, for example, focuses on parents’ rights to choose and individual liberty.

“Parents with the most concerns about vaccinating their children were twice as likely to have a high score for those clean, pure, wholesome themes as well as support of themes of individual liberty, compared to parents with the fewest concerns,” said Avnika Amin, a doctoral student in epidemiology at Emory University, and one of the study’s authors.

Much research about vaccine attitudes and interventions to boost vaccination rates focuses on education, she said. “The assumption is that if we throw some fact out there, it will change their minds,” she said. But that doesn’t really address the root of the problem, she said, because people don’t make decisions solely based on facts.

Amin and Emory colleagues conducted online surveys of 1,100 U.S. parents of children under age 13. They assessed the parents’ level of vaccination hesitancy and explored how important different moral values were to them when deciding if something was right or wrong.

They found that other factors, such as age, sex, level of education or political views didn’t seem to affect the relationship between concern about vaccinations and their concerns for liberty and purity, she said.

“Parents with the most concerns about vaccinating their children were twice as likely to have a high score for those clean, pure, wholesome themes as well as support of themes of individual liberty, compared to parents with the fewest concerns,” said Avnika Amin, a doctoral student in epidemiology at Emory University, and one of the study’s authors.

Much research about vaccine attitudes and interventions to boost vaccination rates focuses on education, she said. “The assumption is that if we throw some fact out there, it will change their minds,” she said. But that doesn’t really address the root of the problem, she said, because people don’t make decisions solely based on facts.

Amin and Emory colleagues conducted online surveys of 1,100 U.S. parents of children under age 13. They assessed the parents’ level of vaccination hesitancy and explored how important different moral values were to them when deciding if something was right or wrong.

They found that other factors, such as age, sex, level of education or political views didn’t seem to affect the relationship between concern about vaccinations and their concerns for liberty and purity, she said.

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 10th, 2017 at 11:51 am and is filed under Latest News.

Literature Literature archive

Cooper S, et al. 2018 HUMAN VACCINES & IMMUNOTHERAPEUTICS VOL. 14(10):2355–2357 https://doi.org/10.1080/21645515.2018.1460987
SA Madhi, M C Nunes 2018 Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics Vol. 14(9): 2183-2188 DOI: 10.1080/21645515.2018.1483810
A Jama, M Ali , ALindstrand, et al 2018 Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health Vol. 15: 2428. doi:10.3390/ijerph15112428

Videos Video archive

Key figures share their perspectives on a controversy that led to the suspension of Ebola vaccine clinical trials in Ghana.

Drs. Heidi Larson and Pauline Paterson of the Vaccine Confidence Project join episode 50 of the Public Health United podcast with Nina Martin, November 2017.

Drs. Larson and Paterson join a discussion on vaccine confidence at Hong Kong University.  September, 2015.

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