A new study from the University of British Columbia has found that parents of children who do not have their vaccinations up to date may be met with stigmatization for their inaction, which others see as a social threat.
Researchers with UBC’s Department of Sociology and National Core for Neuroethics looked at data from an online survey in the United States which polled 1,469 people about their thoughts relating to four different scenarios involving vaccination. The four vignettes described a mother who either refused to have their child vaccinated over concerns about vaccinations, delayed vaccinations for the same reason, had no concerns yet gave time constraints (job and family demands) as reasons why her child remained under-vaccinated or had no concerns and kept her child’s vaccinations up to date.
Polled respondents were asked questions to gauge their attitudes towards the mother (the scenarios involved mothers only, as they are thought to be the primary decision-makers on children’s health care) and to tease out whether there was blame, anger or separation (“us versus them” thinking) directed towards mothers of under-vaccinated children and how willing the respondents would be to make friends with the mother or let their own children play with the hypothetical under-vaccinated child.
The study found that both parents and children in the under-vaccinated scenarios were negatively evaluated by respondents, with the most negative attitude being placed on parents in the vaccine refusal scenario.
The researchers said that the distancing attitudes and negative perceptions amounted to a form of stigmatization, something that is consistent with past trends in public responses towards the spread of disease.
“History is replete with examples where public fear of infectious diseases (e.g., leprosy, cholera, HIV/AIDS) led to the stigmatizing of social groups perceived as posing risks for spreading disease (e.g., the impoverished, immigrants, gay men),” say the study’s authors, whose research is published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
But while often involving negative connotations, the researchers state that stigmatization —which means the labelling of people or groups as different and manifests as discrimination and loss of social status for the stigmatized — can also have positive social value, as in the case of the anti-tobacco movement.
“Though prior work has examined vaccine hesitant mothers' experiences and perceptions of stigma, to our knowledge, no study has systematically examined how child under-vaccination influences people's evaluations, stigmatizing reactions, and support for policy,” say the study’s authors.
The study also polled respondents’ views on public policy issues such as increasing funding for vaccination research and vaccination education and banning under-vaccinated children from school and found opinions to be strongly correlated with evaluations of parents’ decisions about vaccinating their child.
The researchers see their work as contributing to the discussion around policy concerning vaccinations and, specifically, whether health care advocates should be tapping into the trend towards stigmatization in their efforts to improve public immunization rates.
“Child vaccination rates are a complex problem that pose significant health consequences for the child and the community,” says Nicholas Fitz, recent UBC sociology graduate and study co-author, in a press release. “If health officials want to effectively address low child vaccination rates, it’s important to understand not only the parents’ motivations but also how the general public views both under-vaccinated children and their parents.”