The Real Reasons that Parents Have Stopped Vaccinating Their Kids

Scientists have a lot of theories — not a lot of them flattering — about why some people have stopped vaccinating their children. But those are just theories. If we want to save lives, it's time for us to figure out what's really causing this outbreak of vaccine hesitancy, and do something about it.

That's the topic of a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which suggests a future research agenda to determine why vaccine hesitancy is on the rise.

Speaking with MIT News, study co-author Seth Mnookin says that people are still "hesitant" to vaccinate their children. This is exacting a terrible social cost, both in lives lost and in money.

Says Mnookin:

Overall, vaccination rates in the United States are extremely high: over 90 percent for the MMR vaccine and varicella and over 94 percent for diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis.

But if you're living in a community, or your child attends a preschool, where only 70 percent or 80 percent of kids are vaccinated, the overall U.S. vaccination rates aren't going to help you very much. We've seen tangible evidence of the consequences in diseases outbreaks over the past several years.

In 2011, the United States experienced its largest number of individual measles cases (222) and outbreaks (17) since 1996. The initial case in virtually every one of these outbreaks was someone who was intentionally unvaccinated, or someone of unknown vaccine status. In 2013, 187 more cases were reported; 58 of those made up the largest outbreak in the United States in 17 years. All of this is especially notable because in 2000, the World Health Organization declared measles functionally eliminated in the United States.

Those infections were obviously awful for the families affected, but they also have a real impact on the ability of public health officials to operate in those communities. A study of a 2008 measles outbreak in San Diego found that containing each individual case cost more than $10,000. That's a lot of money that could be spent elsewhere.

Mnookin, whose most recent book The Panic Virus is about vaccine hesitancy, suggests that medical professionals may be using the wrong tactics to persuade parents who are fearful of vaccines. In the report, Mnookin and his co-authors suggest scientists need to understand first where people are getting their information about vaccines, then explore more helpful ways of using medical appointments to debunk false reports linking vaccines to autism and other diseases.

Read the full report here.