Forty-five percent of U.S adult patients reported major doubts about vaccine safety, according to a recent survey.
The survey, conducted by The Harris Poll for the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), found that the top three reasons given for patient skepticism were online articles, past wrongdoings by pharmaceutical companies, and information from medical experts.
Since vaccines have been effective in eradicating disease, it is possible this belief stems from a deep-rooted fear of vaccine side-effects, rather than the vaccine itself.
“From an evolutionary perspective, humans are primed to pay attention to threats or negative information,” says Rachel Schmuts, DO, perinatal psychiatrist, in an AOA news release. “It makes sense that people hold onto fears that vaccines are harmful, especially when they believe their children are in danger.”
Social media offers a wide range of information on the subject of vaccines, but information bias prevents many from attainting factual information and instead reinforces previous beliefs. Online support groups for those who oppose vaccines also contribute to the bias.
“Online support groups seem to solidify their beliefs, making them less susceptible to influence from their neighbors and real-world communities,” says Shmuts.
Without proper information about vaccines, these “real-world communities” may be at stake since the effectiveness of some vaccines rely on herd immunity. “Some diseases, like measles, require as much as 95 percent of the population to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity,” says Paul Ehrmann, DO, a family physician, in the news release.
According to Ehrmann, herd immunity is important because some members of the population cannot be vaccinated due to medical conditions like allergies or a weakened immune system. Because of this, Ehrmann says his clinic does not take new patients who refuse vaccines. However, there are clinics that accept these individuals.
“People know that a lot of practices won’t accept patients who don’t vaccinate, so when they find one that will, they spread the word to their community that it’s a safe space,” says Ehrmann. “Whether intentional or not, these doctors are often seen as endorsing anti-vaxxer beliefs.”
Ehrmann believes that the most effective way to change the attitude toward vaccines is through public policy. In 2015, his home state of Michigan was ranked 44th in the country for number of vaccinated children. This improved significantly in 2017 when the state launched a public health campaign.
“Beliefs are hard to change especially when they’re based in fear,” says Ehrmann. “But, being responsible for our patients’ health and the public’s health, we can’t afford to give in to those fears. We must insist on evidence-based medicine.”