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What’s Fueling Fears About Vaccines? It’s Not the Science

Science-based facts from a trusted source can do a lot to help quiet the fears of vaccine-hesitant people and help them make healthier choices.

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Misinformation and fear are some of the biggest reasons parents are refusing to get their kids vaccinated. Getty Images

Rebekah Ficco was terrified of vaccines. She experienced a miscarriage with her first pregnancy, and when she was able to get pregnant again, she was determined to protect her baby.

“I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize this, so I poured into reading,” Ficco told Healthline. “And when you’re a new parent, you come across all this information. And I just started seeing more and more about vaccines.”

For Ficco, there was nothing scarier than the thought of losing her child. And when she read about accounts on the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) of children dying of SIDS shortly after their vaccinations, she panicked.

“I had experienced just a very minor piece of what it’s like to lose a child… but I knew I never wanted to be in their shoes,” Ficco said.

Still, she wasn’t completely against vaccines until after her daughter was born and they went to the first pediatrician appointment.

“I hadn’t completely decided one way or the other,” she explained, stating that her daughter hadn’t received the hepatitis B vaccine at birth, but did get the vitamin K shot.

When she brought her questions and concerns to her daughter’s pediatrician, though, the response she received pushed her straight into the anti-vaccination camp.

“The nurse and the doctor were both very pushy and judgmental, and it just made me feel like everything I’d read must be true. They must be getting paid by big pharma. I walked out saying I would never vaccinate my kids,” she said.

Ficco’s initial hesitation to vaccinate her child isn’t uncommon. In fact, experts say more than 60 percent of new parents feel this way.

L.J. Tan, chief strategy officer of the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC), told Healthline, “When we talk to parents about vaccines, they usually fall into three categories. First you have the folks like myself — 20 to 30 percent of parents who are vaccinating because they believe in the science.”

Conversely, he explained there are then 5 to 10 percent of parents who are so resistant to vaccines, nothing anyone says will ever change their minds.

“But then there’s the big group in the middle, the 60 percent who are hesitant but who we want to try to educate,” he said.

Ficco was initially one of those. And had it not been for how that first doctor’s appointment went, it’s possible she could have been convinced to vaccinate her children entirely on schedule.

Healthline spoke to 20 parents who fall into that vaccine-hesitant 60 percent.

We asked them to explain their concerns and to bring us their questions.

The surprising result was that no two parents had the exact same concerns. Many were worried about unique family histories, or random connections they’d read about online.

According to Tan, this is true of vaccine-hesitant parents in general.

While many might believe this group has fallen victim to the debunked research of Andrew Wakefield — avoiding vaccines simply out of fear of a now-disproven link to autism — most of the parents we spoke with never mentioned that as an actual concern.

Instead, they all had their own worries when it came to the vaccines meant to protect their children.

“It often becomes a person by person and parent by parent conversation,” Tan explained. “That’s why it’s a hard conversation for doctors.”

But with pediatricians often serving as the front line in addressing these concerns, finding a way to do so without pushing scared parents away is crucial to ensuring the factual information gets out there.

That’s part of what Tan advocates for through the IAC.

“What we’re trying to do is give physicians room to answer those questions confidently, and to ease those concerns, giving them the tools to address specific questions,” he said.

Of the parents that spoke with Healthline, many said they became concerned about vaccinations after reading reports on VAERS.

Parents read about cases of adverse reactions and said they determined for themselves that that was proof vaccines posed a health risk.

The problem with this conclusion is that VAERS is a passive reporting system, according to Tan.

“We encourage everyone who thinks they may have had any reaction to a vaccine at all, whether it’s causal or not, to report it to VAERS so that we can then study any possible links,” he said.

But that means that many of the reports may not actually be linked to the vaccine. In fact, Tan told one story of a VAERS report where a young woman had died after receiving the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination.

The problem? She died in a car accident — information that was only found after further investigating the report.

Several parents that spoke with Healthline also brought up concerns about the Gardasil vaccination, which has been found to prevent cervical cancer, saying it hadn’t been around long enough or tested thoroughly enough for them to feel it’s safe.

But Dr. Sean O’Leary, spokesperson and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on infectious diseases, explained that simply isn’t the case.

“More than 100 million doses have been given in the last 15 years. It’s one of the best studied vaccines we have in terms of safety because it has been studied in response to some of the unfounded concerns, and we know that it’s very safe and very effective,” he said.

Another concern parents voiced was the idea of overloading children’s immune systems with too many vaccines at once.

Several had opted for alternative vaccination schedules in order to avoid this. But as Dr. O’Leary explained, “The immune system responds to thousands of things every day, so the amount of proteins that it responds to in a vaccine is a drop in the bucket.”

Tan agreed, pointing out that children have a bigger immune response to things like scraping their knee, playing in the mud, or even eating the food their parents prepare for them than they do to vaccines.

“You are being exposed to far more antigens in your daily life than you are from vaccines,” he explained. “In the past, vaccines may have had a lot of antigens — the smallpox vaccine is a good example. But our current vaccines are very finite and controlled, and as our technology has improved, the amount of antigens you get from a vaccine now is very small.”

This is part of the reason both experts strongly advocate for vaccinating on schedule.

O’Leary explained that it’s important to get young children their vaccines as early as possible, because many of these diseases are more severe for younger children.

“Also, it’s kind of torture,” he said in reference to extended vaccine schedules. “Infants feel pain with three shots or one in a similar fashion, that’s been studied using biomarkers. When you spread them out, you’re subjecting them to multiple different painful episodes instead of just one.”

As Healthline spoke with these experts about the concerns raised by parents, one thing became clear: The questions are infinite, and it’s not easy to boil down responses in a few short minutes.

That’s why finding credible resources is vitally important for parents who may have questions or concerns.

Tan recommended Vaccinate Your Family and the Vaccine Education Center for parents who might have questions they’d like answers to before their next pediatrician appointment.

There are also other reliable resources that have been created to provide accurate, science-based information about vaccinations for concerned parents.

Julie Leask, PhD, is a social scientist who has done a great deal of research surrounding vaccine hesitancy and how physicians can best address those concerns.

She’s part of a new resource for parents called Sharing Knowledge About Immunisation that aims to help parents find the answers they may be looking for.

“I advise parents who are concerned about vaccination to be very scrutinizing of what they read online,” she explained. “Try to source credible websites. There are activists worldwide working day and night to dissuade people from vaccinating.”

Dr. Leask explained that sometimes the motivations are financially driven, and other times it’s parents who honestly believe their message. But ultimately, she said their claims need to be put into perspective and compared to the data and testing that already exists.

That was the realization Ficco eventually came to.

“The truth is that I was terrified,” she said. “The misinformation out there struck me right in my terrified new-mama heart.”

It wasn’t until her sister-in-law started an anti-vaccine blog that Ficco began to reconsider her own position on vaccines.

“Parents were taking her advice and opinion as fact and that really slapped me in the face. I realized I had been reading and making choices for my kids based basically on her blog, just from different people with different platforms,” Ficco said.

Once that realization hit, around the time her oldest daughter was nearly 3 and her youngest was 6 months, she took them to the pediatrician to begin getting their vaccinations. “My girls have recently been completely caught up,” she said proudly.

Today, Ficco said her biggest regret is that she allowed her earlier choices about vaccinations to be guided by fear instead of science.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned in this journey is that correlation does not equal causation, and to really consider the source of what you’re reading before you take anything as fact,” she said.


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