Sometimes parents ask us whether they should wait for more information before getting their child vaccinated, especially if the vaccine is relatively new. They prefer to take a “wait-and-see” approach, thinking this is the most prudent, and perhaps safer, approach.
Unfortunately, a “wait-and-see” approach just changes the risks. When we speak to parents who are choosing to delay vaccines in order to get more information, we hear similar reasons:
Distrust or misunderstanding of science
People may not trust science for a variety of reasons — they didn’t understand or like science in school; they have religious beliefs that they feel conflict; or they don’t trust the entities that produce science (government, industry, etc.). However, science is central to much of human progress, and adults increasingly need to make decisions based on topics that have a scientific underpinning.
Science is not knowing facts like the earth is round or force equals mass times acceleration. Rather, it is a way of knowing and understanding the world. And while many don’t feel that they understand or like science, the reality is that people use science all the time. For example, what do people do when they cannot find their keys or their internet is not working? Without realizing it, they go through a series of small “experiments” to solve the problem. That is the essence of science — having a question (Where are my keys?), forming a hypothesis (My keys are in the kitchen.), testing the hypothesis (I am looking on the counter, next to the refrigerator, on the desk, etc.), and drawing a conclusion (My keys must not be in the kitchen.). The more places in the kitchen the person looks without finding the keys, the less likely the keys are in the kitchen. Of course, it can never be said for sure the keys are not in the kitchen, but the more one looks without finding them, the more confident the person becomes that the keys must be somewhere other than the kitchen
The conflict arises when people deny or “cherry-pick” facts because the facts don’t agree with their beliefs. In the case of vaccines, some people prefer not to get their children vaccinated because it conflicts with their religious beliefs; but religions generally do not advise against vaccination. Generally speaking, religious support arises from two main tenets. First, protect and care for your children. Vaccines protect children by preventing suffering from disease. Second, do unto others as you want done unto you. We do not live in isolation, so our decisions affect others. In the case of vaccinations and diseases, the reality is that some people cannot get vaccinated, so they rely on those around them to protect them from infectious diseases. Science provides us with a way to know that vaccines are safe and effective; religion provides us with the moral compass and belief in protecting our children and neighbors
Finally, historical examples of ways that government and industry earned mistrust certainly exist. However, trusting science is not about trusting the people doing science or delivering the message as much as it is about the facts being shared and how they were established. Science-based information should be evaluated by the strength of the data — the entire body of data related to the information not just one study or report.
Lack of understanding of risks/benefit
As VEC Director Dr. Paul Offit is fond of saying, “Choosing not to vaccinate is not a risk-free choice. It’s just a choice to take a different risk.” In fact, doing nothing is actually doing something — it is choosing to risk the chance of getting a particular disease.
Consider this to be like driving above the speed limit. Many people will speed without being caught, but some will not be so lucky and suffer consequences like having an accident or getting a speeding ticket. Because of how well vaccines work, today’s parents no longer see diseases like measles, mumps, polio or diphtheria, among others. Consequently, a risk/benefit imbalance is created in which the vaccine seems more risky than the disease. The reality is that while many of the diseases that vaccines prevent are not reported regularly in the news, they affect lives. Doctors working in hospitals and public health officials working in the community can attest to this — and that is why they are often so passionate when discussing the importance of vaccinations.
Vaccines allow parents to control the risk of disease by controlling the child’s exposure to the germ. They have the benefit of knowing the day and time their child is exposed, and they know the dose is one that will provide immunity without making the child suffer the symptoms of disease.
Fear of getting it wrong
Parents just want to do what is right, so when they feel like not enough is known, they wait for more information to become available. This would be akin to not using a car seat because of uncertainty about how to install it or while waiting to see if a better one is developed.
Realize that “getting more information” may mean two things. Some questions may already have answers. Even though an individual may not know the answer, the answer may be out there. To that end, people should ask their doctor questions. However, sometimes parents who “wait and see” talk about waiting for others to get a vaccine to see what happens. In this case the concern is more about how well studied the vaccine was before it was licensed. Most vaccines have been studied for 25 to 30 years before they are licensed. So the notion that a vaccine is “new” is not exactly accurate. For example, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was studied for seven years in 30,000 people before it was licensed. Vaccines are not licensed or recommended until a large body of evidence shows them to be safe and effective. So while new information may eventually be learned, giving a recommended vaccine is still making a decision based on knowledge not based on inaction or theoretical concerns that may or may not be realized.
Parents just want to do the best for their kids. That means separating knowledge from emotion and realizing that inaction is still an action — one that could lead to suffering for their child.