Despite the false claims that have been made against the measles vaccine, most Americans agree that the MMR vaccine – against measles, mumps and rubella – is safe and effective.
Most rate the benefits of the vaccine as high, and only 7 percent think it is low, a poll by the Pew Research Center found last year. Only 11 percent said there was a high risk of side effects. And 88 percent said the benefits outweigh the risks.
Similarly, 82 percent of Americans think that the vaccines should be required for children to attend school, as a public health measure to protect others from falling ill.
If Americans are this smart about and supportive of vaccines, what can the problem be? Why does there seem to be so much debate on the subject? It’s a subject worth examining, especially now, during National Infant Immunization Week.
A lot of it, the poll shows, has to do with age. “Adults under age 30 [are]less convinced that the MMR vaccine brings high preventive health benefits,” Pew reported. They are almost twice as likely to disagree with the idea that vaccination should be required for children to attend public school.
Parents of preschoolers are less likely to see the benefits of vaccination than people who have no children at home, or even parents of children 5 to 17. The group most likely to agree with the idea that vaccines are generally safe and beneficial are people older than 65.
It will take more polling and study to get the full picture of why younger people, and the parents of very young children, are less likely to trust the mountains of medical evidence showing the effectiveness and safety of vaccines, but a few explanations come to mind.
One is that parents of older children have seen their children through their vaccines. Almost all of them have observed their kids come through the experience with nothing worse than a sore arm. They know what the parents of the youngest children don’t: It will be fine. It hurts for a moment, but your children will be protected for a long time, and so will the people around them.
Another generational issue involves the use of social media and the Internet to get information. With so many websites out there, it’s easy to pick up pseudoscientific claims and often difficult to know how to separate quality information from rumor and myth. And younger adults are more likely to rely on social media and the Internet as a source of information than are older adults.
But a National Geographic article published in 2015 delves into a deeper generation-related issue: Younger adults haven’t had a chance to witness the terrible side effects that can result from measles and other diseases that used to be common in childhood. In a nation where we have eradicated endemic measles, of course younger people might not see the benefit of vaccines. They feel that these diseases are virtually extinct and that their children don’t need shots to be protected. What they might not recognize is that what’s really protecting their children are all the other parents who take the responsible step of vaccinating.
When enough parents decide not to vaccinate within a community, as we saw in the Minnesota measles outbreak in which 20 children were hospitalized, these diseases can make a comeback. In Europe, more than two dozen children recently died of measles because of too-low vaccination rate.
If most of what they’re hearing about in online parent groups is the remote risk of vaccination, and they have no opportunity to observe the much greater risk of measles, the balance tips more against vaccination.
According to National Geographic:
"We have become prisoners of our own success," says William Schaffner, who chairs the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. "Nobody knows what measles is.
"We now have two generations who haven't seen measles," he says. "The mothers were vaccinated. They never saw measles. Their mothers—the grandmothers—barely saw measles themselves. So the grandmother has no influence. The mother is clueless and so the child goes unvaccinated."
A few years ago, Schaffner was invited to speak to a group of 20 young mothers who had reservations about vaccine safety. His task was to educate, not argue, so he began by talking about polio and the vaccine developed in 1954 that practically eradicated it. He had barely begun speaking when one mother, looking confused, blurted out: "Why are you now talking about shirts?"
"She was bright, college educated, computer savvy, and she'd never encountered the concept of polio. She instead mixed it up with Ralph Lauren," Schaffner says. "It's a bit humorous, a bit tragic, and illustrative of the problem today."
It’s also worth noting another finding of the Pew poll: Adults who are knowledgeable about science have much more positive views of vaccination.
Could education much earlier in life be key to overcoming this generational gap? If students in public school aren’t learning about the historical worldwide tragedies caused by flu, measles and polio, they might be less likely to appreciate the wonders of vaccination. Learning more about what valid science looks like, as opposed to fraudulent pseudoscientific claims, could go a long way toward making intelligent and informed decisions about what they read.
Educating vaccine-hesitant adults will continue to be a worthwhile effort, which is why The Immunization Partnership sponsored legislation that would have required Texas parents to take a short online course on vaccination before they exempted their children from the state’s vaccine laws. A similar law has been successful in the state of Washington.
But perhaps we also need to start much earlier. Part of our collective hthat istory is the story of a common enemy, serious disease, and the number of these diseases have been brought under control through immunization.
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