Yesterday I wrote about the fraud and science myths that inspired the anti-vaccination movement. Since I’ve gotten a few questions about the demographics of anti-immunisation groups, here is a broad sketch of the American public who don’t believe in vaccination. Scientific data show that anti-vaxxers come from all walks of life. There are no significant differences along gender, education, religion, race and income, though there are some differences in terms of political ideology. The strongest difference is in age.
As promised, I will later provide a more in-depth analysis of the sociology of anti-vaxxers, addressing educational and policy intervention. The main issue I highlight here is that the biggest divide is lack of trust in science amongst younger parents.
Parental Anxiety on Safety
A 2014 study from Professor Dan Kahan from Yale University finds that a minority of the American population does not support immunisation. Sampling a nationally representative group of over 2,300 American adults, the study finds that the majority support vaccines: 80% agree that the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks; and 75% reject the idea that vaccines are not targeting serious diseases.
Let’s look at those with negative views: 41% of people had some level of doubt that vaccines were safe; and they were more likely to think the risks might lead to autism (25%) than other health risks like diabetes (10%).
While there were no major gender differences overall, it is actually White men who exhibit the greatest scepticism on safety of vaccines (amongst those who question the science). This is consistent with other anti-science views. The idea that this is a “mummy-blogger” driven problem is incorrect. The biggest problem is anxiety parents of all genders have about their young children’s safety.
Even amongst the people who were hostile towards other science issues like climate change and evolution, they were more likely to believe that the risks of vaccines were low and the benefits outweighed the risks. “Even within those groups, in other words, individuals hostile to childhood vaccinations are outliers.”
The study is focused on attitudes, but notes that behaviour is a stronger indicator of immunisation stance – and 91% of infants are immunised according to CDC data. The study suggests there is not a large and growing number of people who don’t believe in vaccines, it’s just that these groups are in “enclaves” who “often harbour communities of vocal critics of mandatory vaccination.” They now receive more media coverage, especially with new technologies that proliferate their views. The problem is of course, that even if a minority choose not to immunise, this puts a high number of infants at risk. The study suggests that understanding these perceptions of risk, and addressing them directly, is paramount.
Giving us hope is the fact that dispelling myths through targeted education does make an impact: 78% of skeptics were more likely to agree on the science after reading an official statement on vaccine safety by the American Academy of Paediatrics.
The report argues that policy and education should be focused on addressing confusion about vaccines:
“Pockets of under-vaccination pose a serious and unmistakable public health concern… An important objective of such [public education] inquiry, moreover, should be to devise effective communication strategies for reassuring ordinary parents who are not hostile to vaccination but simply confused or anxious—whether as a result of misinformation being disseminated by critics of universal immunisation or otherwise.”
I have more to say on how to better understand these concerns and how to target education programs, but as I’ve noted, I’ll do this in another post.
Another recent survey released last last week by the Pew Research Centre came to similar conclusions on the diversity of people who don’t believe in immunisation. There are no single demographic profile, but political views have some impact. More Democrats (76%) think vaccines should be required in comparison to Republicans and independents (65% of each).
The most pronounced difference is in age. The majority of older adults support vaccines (79%) while 59% of those under 30 support this view. A slightly higher proportion of (younger) parents with children believe vaccinations should be a parental choice rather than policy-determined mandate. What’s the key difference here? Generational experience. Older cohorts have living memory of measles and similar diseases while younger people do not; hence their scepticism.
While level of education does not have a strong impact on refusal to believe vaccines are safe, being a scientist does have an impact: 86% of scientists say vaccines should be required for all, compared to 68% of the American public as a whole.
What’s the biggest problem here? As I’ve written in elsewhere, part of the issue is lack of trust in science and lack of scientific literacy. People distrust science because there are so many information sources out there which cast doubt on basic scientific facts.
I know many scientists are engaging in wonderful outreach efforts on immunisation. This work is sometimes frustrating, but as I said yesterday, the interdisciplinary conversations that are happening on G+ give me great hope that public education can work. In the comments of my previous post, I explained that the loudest voices tend to be hostile as they are defending personal values and identity. They drown out the participation of the undecided and disengaged. By pooling our knowledge and resources from different disciplines, we can collectively work on ways to reach those who are privately worried about the risks and safety of vaccines.
See yesterday’s posts for discussion and science references on autism, mercury and other vaccination myths, or check out Cliff Bramlett’s post on resources about vaccines.