“I heard the vaccine has a microchip in it.” That’s a surprising number of people telling Rupali Limaye, PhD, why they don’t want to vaccinate their child.
They might also say that they are concerned that certain vaccines cause autism (a persistent myth that has no factual basis), or that recommended vaccination schedules are dangerously fast, or that there are long-lasting side effects, or that the government is withholding information, or that infections aren’t dangerous, among other things, she says.
The problem, says Limaye, who studies human behavior and disease spread at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is that the science just doesn’t support these ideas.
vaccinations are a marvel of the modern world, protecting against diseases like hepatitis B, diphtheria, polio, measles and tetanus that killed and debilitated millions of people around the world in earlier eras, says Limaye.
This is why the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other reputable health organizations are so clear on a vaccination schedule that almost all parents should follow.
And yet reluctance to vaccinate children remains.
And while it’s true that mounting misinformation is fueling this hesitation, vaccination rates can also vary by community, tradition, or philosophical belief. Native American and Alaska Native babies are 10% less likely to be fully vaccinated than white children. And there’s a similar gap for black kids.
Socioeconomic status may play an even bigger role. Babies from families living below the poverty line are 30% less likely to receive all recommended vaccinations in the first 3 years of life.
In some cases, this hesitation stems from an exploitative history. Researchers at the infamous “Tuskegee Experiment” (1932-1972), for example, deliberately failed to treat a group of black men with syphilis just so they could see the effects of the disease. And in the 1950s, birth control pill research used the bodies of Puerto Rican women without their full consent. It’s easy to see how this sort of story could make someone suspicious of mandates from the medical establishment.
Whatever the reason, when parents skip government-mandated and doctor-recommended childhood vaccinations, they are not only putting their own child’s health at risk. They also risk community health, Limaye says.
Closing vaccination gaps saves lives. Globally, measles deaths fell by 74% between 2000 and 2007, in large part due to increased vaccination.
In the US, marginalized communities appear to be bearing the brunt of the consequences of vaccine delays. That’s often because they don’t have adequate access to medical care and health education, which can make so much of a difference during an illness.
For example, between 2009 and 2022, flu hospitalizations were 1.8 times more common among blacks than whites — Native Americans were 1.3 times more common and Hispanics were 1.2 times more common. However, research has shown that delayed vaccinations in these communities may also be part of the problem.
In 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, measles outbreaks reached their highest level since 1994. This happened because more and more parents decided against the measles outbreaks MMR vaccine (which prevents measles, mumps and rubella), often due to misinformation about its dangers.
MMR herd vaccination rates need to be around 95% to be effective. Below that there is a risk of an outbreak, particularly in areas where children have not received both doses of the vaccine – which can be quite common. (For example, 2016 data showed that in certain Minnesota counties, nearly half of all children under the age of 7 had not received both doses.)
These 2019 measles outbreaks were particularly notable in some Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, NY, where there were low vaccination rates and legal loopholes for religious communities.
Erroneous prejudices about the safety of vaccinations and their relation to Jewish law were at the root of these outbreaks. But the increase in childhood illnesses led to wide-ranging community discussion between the New York State Department of Health, Jewish scholars, local health professionals, and the community at large, which helped increase immunization rates and lower infection rates.
Other cases were more difficult to treat. For example early in the COVID Pandemic, a 2021 Yale study showed that a group identified as white evangelical Christians could be persuaded to receive vaccines based on the greater good of the community. However, research showed that the effect seemed to diminish as the pandemic progressed, possibly as attitudes towards vaccines became more closely linked to specific political identities and viewpoints.
Still, there’s no reason why immunization education can’t work in religious communities, Limaye says. While research shows a trend toward vaccine hesitancy among certain religious groups, only about 3% of people believe their religion specifically prohibits vaccines, according to a 2022 University of Michigan study.
Vaccination education can turn the tide, but the approach you take can make all the difference.
According to studies, campaigns that focus on a specific religious identity are more likely to provoke defensive reactions. It is better to focus on the universal moral value of caring for others.
In fact, it’s often best not to directly disagree with viewpoints, no matter how outlandish they may seem, says Limaye. So what does she say to someone concerned about microchips in a vaccine?
“I say, ‘I know there’s a lot of information out there, and it’s hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not real. Let me tell you about the vaccine development process.’ ”
“Part of that is making it so that it’s a shared decision-making process,” she says.
Keep sharing information, she says. In one instance, Limaye saw the mother of a child with asthma decide to get vaccinated after hearing about another child with COVID who died because she also had it asthma.
Correcting new myths that pop up can often be a game of slap-the-mole, says Limaye. For that reason, she has some general guidelines on how to talk to a person who may be misinformed about the dangers and benefits of vaccines:
And don’t talk down to people, Limaye says. Make an effort to meet them on their own terms. Personal stories are a great way to connect. If you have a personal story about a kid who got really sick due to lack of vaccinations, “I think that’s really strong.”