Misinformation about vaccine safety drives reluctance to vaccinate children

While 78% of U.S. adults are vaccinated against COVID-19, only 31% of children have been vaccinated. The discrepancy points to the acceptance of misinformation about the safety of vaccines in general and the COVID-19 vaccines in particular, according to a new study.

As of late September 2022, nearly 78% of U.S. adults but only 31% of children ages 5 to 11 had completed their primary series of vaccinations against COVID-19, according to health authorities.

In an open-access article published in the journal Vaccine, researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) attribute that dramatic discrepancy in part to the acceptance of misinformation about the safety of vaccines in general and the COVID-19 vaccines in particular.

A person holds a sign during a protest that reads WELL INFORMED NOT CONSENTING.

The researchers found that U.S. adult hesitancy to be vaccinated against COVID-19 is associated with misbeliefs about vaccines in general, such as that vaccines contain toxins like antifreeze, and about specific vaccines, such as the fears that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccines causes autism (false) and the flu vaccine increases your chances of contracting COVID-19 (there is no evidence of this).

However, those same concerns also predicted hesitancy to vaccinate children ages 5 to 11, even among those who had been vaccinated themselves.

“All of the misconceptions we studied focused in one way or another on the safety of vaccination, and that explains why people’s misbeliefs about vaccinating kids are so highly related to their concerns about vaccines in general,” says lead author and APPC research director Dan Romer. “Unfortunately, those concerns weigh even more heavily when adults consider vaccinating children.”

Misbeliefs about vaccine safety were a powerful predictor of the uptake of the COVID-19 vaccines in adults from April to September 2021. For individuals who reported the highest level of belief in misinformation, only 40% had received the recommended doses of COVID-19 vaccination by September 2021. On the other hand, for those who reported the lowest level of belief in misinformation, 96% had reported receiving the vaccines.

A key question for the APPC team was ‘Why would an adult who had been vaccinated against COVID-19 express reluctance to have a 5- to 11-year-old do the same?’ The study’s answer is that in addition to general misconceptions about the safety of vaccines and vaccination, misinformation about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine increased the reluctance of even vaccinated adults, including vaccinated parents of children, to recommend COVID-19 vaccination for 5- to 11-year-olds.

“Concerns about vaccine safety are clearly a powerful predictor of reluctance to vaccinate oneself and children,” says co-author Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. “It is easy to understand why adults would be particularly concerned about adverse reactions, impacts on the DNA, the potential fertility of children, and the possibility that a vaccine might contain toxins or cause autism. Allaying these unwarranted concerns should be a public health priority.”

Read more at Annenberg Public Policy Center.