“I heard there was a microchip in the vaccine.” That’s what a surprising number of people tell Rupali Limaye, PhD, why they don’t want their child vaccinated.
They might also say they’re worried that certain vaccines cause autism (a persistent myth that has no basis in fact) or that the recommended vaccination schedules are dangerously fast, or that there are side effects. durable, or that the government is withholding vaccine information, or that the infections are not dangerous, among other things, she says.
The problem, says Limaye, who studies human behavior and the spread of disease at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is that the science simply doesn’t support these ideas.
Vaccines are a miracle of the modern world that protect against diseases like hepatitis B, diphtheria, poliomyelitis, measles and tetanus, which in previous eras killed and weakened millions of people around the world, says Limaye.
That’s why the CDC, National Institutes of Health, American Academy of Pediatrics, and other reputable health organizations are so clear on a vaccination schedule that almost every parent should follow.
And yet, hesitations about vaccinating children persist.
And while it’s true that growing misinformation is fueling this hesitation, vaccination rates can also vary by community, tradition, or philosophical belief. Native American and Alaska Native babies are 10% less likely to be fully immunized than white children. And there is a similar gap for black children.
Socioeconomic status may play an even more important role. Babies from families living below the poverty line are 30% less likely to receive all recommended vaccines in their first 3 years of life.
In some cases, this hesitation stems from a medical history of exploitation. For example, the researchers of the infamous “Tuskegee Experiment” (1932-1972) deliberately omitted to treat a group of black men with syphilis just so they could see the effects of the disease. And in the 1950s, birth control pill research used the bodies of Puerto Rican women without their full consent. It’s easy to see how that kind of story would make someone suspicious of mandates from the medical establishment.
Whatever the reasons, when parents ignore government-mandated and doctor-recommended childhood vaccinations, they are not just taking a chance with their own child’s health. They also endanger the health of the community, says Limaye.
Closing the vaccine gap saves lives. Worldwide, measles deaths fell by 74% between 2000 and 2007, largely due to increased vaccinations.
In the United States, marginalized communities seem to bear the brunt of the consequences of vaccine hesitancy. It’s often because they don’t have adequate access to the medical care and health education that can make such a difference during an illness.
For example, flu hospitalizations were 1.8 times more common among black populations between 2009 and 2022, compared to white populations — Native Americans were 1.3 times more likely and Hispanics 1.2 times more likely. But, research has shown that lagging vaccinations in these communities may also be part of the problem.
Vaccination and religious identity
In 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, measles outbreaks reached their highest level since 1994. This happened because more and more parents were giving up on the MMR vaccine (which prevents measles, mumps and rubella), often due to misinformation about its dangers.
Herd MMR vaccination rates need to be around 95% to be effective. Below that there is the risk of an outbreak, especially in areas where children have not received both doses of the vaccine – which can be quite common. (For example, data from 2016 showed that in some counties in Minnesota, nearly half of all children under age 7 did not receive both doses.)
These measles outbreaks in 2019 were particularly notable in some Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, NY, where vaccination rates were low as well as legal loopholes for religious communities.
Erroneous preconceptions about the safety of vaccination and its connection to Jewish law were at the root of these epidemics. But the increase in illnesses among children led to a broad community discussion between the New York State Department of Health, Jewish scholars, local health professionals and the community at large, which contributed to increasing vaccination rates and reducing infection rates.
Other cases have been more difficult to manage. For example, at the start of COVID pandemic, a 2021 Yale study showed that a group identified as white evangelical Christians could be convinced to get vaccinated for the greater good of the community. But the research showed that the effect seemed to fade as the pandemic progressed, perhaps as attitudes towards vaccines became more closely tied to certain political identities and viewpoints.
Still, there’s no reason vaccine education can’t work in religious communities, Limaye says. While research shows a trend of vaccine skepticism among some religious groups, only about 3% of people believe their religion explicitly prohibits vaccination, according to a 2022 study from the University of Michigan.
Teach, don’t preach
Vaccine education can turn the tide, but the approach you take can make all the difference.
Campaigns that focus on a particular religious identity are more likely to provoke defensive reactions, research shows. Better to focus on the universal moral value of caring for others.
In fact, it’s often best not to directly contradict views, however unusual they may seem, says Limaye. So what does she say to someone worried about microchips in a vaccine?
“I say, ‘I know there’s a lot of information out there and it’s hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not real. Let me explain a bit about the vaccine development process. ”
“Part of it is framing it so that it’s a shared decision-making process,” she says.
Keep providing information, she said. In one case, Limaye saw the mother of an asthmatic child decide to vaccinate after hearing about another child with COVID who died because he also had asthma.
Correcting new myths that crop up can often be a mole game, says Limaye. That’s why she has some general guidelines on how to speak with someone who may be misinformed about the dangers and benefits of vaccines:
- Listen to concerns and don’t right away correct beliefs that seem based on misinformation.
- Try to answer individual concerns with facts from reputable sources such as the CDC, National Institutes of Health, or American Academy of Pediatrics. In cases where a person is suspicious of one of the sources (like the CDC), it is good to have other reliable choices.
- Consider providing something to read from a trusted source, in the form of a link or a hard copy. “Whether they ask or not, I’d rather give them something to look at than let them go Google something on their own,” Limaye says.
- Listen carefully to objections to what you say and understand that persuasion can take much longer than a 15 minute conversation.
- Give details. Limaye advises medical students in her class to explain to parents and patients more information about how vaccines are created.
And don’t talk to people, said Limaye. Try to meet them on their own terms. Personal stories are a great way to connect. If you have a personal story about a child who got very sick from a lack of vaccination, “I think that’s really powerful.”