WHY do some highly educated, affluent parents decide against vaccinating their children?
Health professionals often scratch their heads over the apparent contradiction of “somebody who should know better” making a decision that is not in the best interests of either their child or the broader community.
I’m not talking about the wacky extremes of the anti-vaccination movement here, but about intelligent people who somehow come to an ill informed conclusion that the risks of vaccines outweigh their benefits.
US anthropologist Dr Kate Clancy casts some light on how this might happen in a Scientific American blog describing her and her husband’s decision not to fully comply with the recommended immunisation schedule for her baby daughter.
“This is a major confession”, she writes.
“I was one of those people who infuriated her doctor with an alternate vaccine schedule. I know I will lose serious science cred by daring to say so. But I think it’s important for me to admit that this was my previous thinking on vaccines, because regardless of what you may think of me, I’m pretty confident I’m not an idiot.”
Why, she goes on to ask, do so many non-idiots get swayed by the anti-vaccination movement?
It’s a good question.
One possible answer Dr Clancy points to is the high level of anxiety experienced by many prospective parents, perhaps especially among those whose educational background encourages them to ask questions and do their own research.
Pregnant women are bombarded with so many warnings, including risks posed by everyday foods, it’s easy to see how they might come to view the world as posing a constant toxic threat to their infant child.
An injection that introduces a foreign substance into their child’s body may be seen by some as just one more such threat — especially now that the far greater threat posed by the diseases immunisation is designed to ward off has become largely abstract for most people.
If you’ve never seen the effects of measles or whooping cough, it’s easier to dismiss the risk they pose and focus instead on the real or imagined risks associated with vaccines.
Dr Clancy writes that many of the educated, affluent parents who reject immunisation are, as she once was, “scared, not really knowing any better, and wanting the right information to make the right choices for [their] child”.
When it comes to vaccines, the internet offers an abundance of information but, unfortunately, a lot of it is not “right”.
Dr Clancy attributes her own shift in views in part to Seth Mnookin’s book on the anti-immunisation movement, A panic virus.
She believes quality information is crucial to changing others’ views, pointing to a new app from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (Vaccines on the Go) designed to answer parents’ questions on vaccine risks and benefits.
These kinds of resources are important, but they won’t do the job on their own.
Somehow, we need to find ways to address the epidemic of parental anxiety — and the distrust of medicine that sometimes accompanies it — if we are to convince those wavering parents of the benefits that immunisation holds for their child.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.