While the study didn’t investigate what triggered their shift in thinking, other research suggests that parents may become confused by the glut of information and misinformation that is currently available about immunization, which can influence their attitudes.
“One of the biggest problems with vaccines is that they are so effective in reducing vaccine preventable disease outbreaks, that most parents today don’t have any personal or even second or third level experience with these diseases and how devastating they can be,” says Dempsey. “Converse to that, a lot of parents today know people whose kids have autism, and because there have been questions raised about the association of vaccines to autism, people feel the risks of vaccination are worse than the risks of the disease they prevent, which isn’t the case.”
Driving much of the lingering skepticism over the safety of vaccines is the debunked claim by a disbarred British physician that the MMR vaccine could cause autism; that study was later discredited and retracted from its publishing journal for being fraudulent.
Also worrying parents is the fact that infants simply get so many vaccines in such a short period of time, when their still-developing immune systems may not be prepared to process them correctly. That shouldn’t be a concern, says Dempsey, since today’s inoculations contain a much smaller load of the bacterial and viral proteins that parents are worried about, compared with older immunizations. “What parents don’t understand is that the number of antigens, or proteins, that challenge the immune system is much less than what used to be given, when there were only a few vaccines in the schedule,” she says. “Parents are understandably counting the number of vaccines, and equating that with the number of antigens, but it’s actually the reverse — fewer antigens are being delivered than there used to be.”
As the new findings reveal, health care providers like Dempsey still face a formidable challenge in providing accurate information to concerned and often conflicted parents. One way to target their education efforts may involve parents without access to health care. More parents who did not have a regular physician to look after the health of their children opted for alternative vaccination schedules than parents who saw doctors regularly. It was unclear whether these parents were less likely to have health care contact because of their non-traditional attitudes about immunization, or vice versa, but focusing on parents who fall outside of the system may be a place to start.
“Vaccination is a complicated issue,” says Dempsey. “Parents make the decisions they feel are in the best interests of their child. There is no magic bullet that will suddenly change everybody’s mind about immunization. But there is some groundwork in developing interventions and educational outreach that might be useful to help more parents put their attitudes about them into a more realistic context.”