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Study: Vaccine hesitancy may be rooted in tough childhoods

A pharmacist prepares to administer the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a community vaccination center in London.
NPR
/
WHQR
A pharmacist prepares to administer the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a community vaccination center in London.

A long-running Duke University study recently found that the roots of anti-vaccine sentiment may come from childhood experiences.

About 15% of American adults are still not vaccinated against Covid-19, making them more vulnerable to catching and spreading the virus, and much more likely to become very sick or die from it.

But why do many Americans remain opposed to the lifesaving measure? Researcher Terrie Moffitt of Duke University decided to find out, and asked participants in a longitudinal study in New Zealand about their views on vaccines.

The study began in 1972-1973, with the births of 1,000 children in New Zealand who would become lifelong participants. They've been getting regular medical and dental examinations in the years since — and answering surveys.

In the summer of 2021, participants were asked whether they planned to receive the Covid vaccination. It was just before a widespread rollout began in the country. Of the 832 participants who responded, 13% of participants said they were opposed to vaccination, while another 12% were a bit hesitant or undecided.

Difficult childhoods are correlated with anti-vax sentiment

Researchers then looked into the historic record for each person who had expressed stringent opposition to the covid vaccine, and found some surprising commonalities.

“As children, they had a lot of adverse experiences," said Psychologist Terrie Moffitt, who authored the study. "These adverse experiences are things like having an alcoholic parent, or being abused or neglected or otherwise maltreated. In other words, not a happy family life. So what they had learned as little children was that it's not safe to trust the grown-ups.”

Moffitt said many of the participants, as teenagers, tended to shut down under stress, and expressed frequent extreme emotions at that age: "When they got those emotions, they just couldn't process incoming information," she added. "This is when they were teenagers, and they've carried that style with them through life."

Moffitt points to a time earlier in the pandemic when uncertainty reigned, and many vaccinated individuals became angry with the unvaccinated. "Now that I've done this research, I have more a feeling of, I understand where they're coming from, and I have more of a feeling of concern. And I think we might be able to do better in the future," she said.

Discussing vaccination with anti-vaxxers

Anti-vaccine sentiment may have roots in childhood, but there's also an entire industry of anti-vax propaganda that keeps people upset, angry, and unwilling to consider new information.

It's an entire cottage industry of alternate medicine and rage-inducing articles about vaccine mandates, complete with its own anti-vax doctors.

Concerned friends and relatives of anti-vaccine individuals are fighting an uphill battle. But Moffitt said it's not a lost cause: and there are certain strategies that might work better than others.

"Remain calm, and encounter your loved one, or your friend at a time when they are calm and not really fearful and angry. If the conversation goes in a direction where they start to become fearful and angry with extreme emotions, just leave it and start it up again later," she said. "Calm, clear, simple messaging, when someone is not upset."

But, she added, it can be frustrating work. "Trying to do this puts in in the line of conflict, and many of us don't want to become wound up and get fearful or anxious ourselves. So it may be that we just have to leave other people entitled to their own opinions."

System-level solutions

At a more systemic level, Moffitt said government-based, top-down approaches are unlikely to convince anyone. But trusted, community-based conversations are more likely to work.

"You can overcome these kinds of mistrust by going down to the local community level and have people talk with people in their church or people in their school. That's where people can build up trust and relationships," Moffitt said.

New Zealand may have had a better strategy in that regard, and because its messaging remained consistent throughout the pandemic. Moffitt says that clarity and consistency is why New Zealand's overall population is 90% vaccinated against covid, while in the U.S. that rate is 77%.

The confusion early on with vaccines, mask mandates, and other health measures created ripe opportunities for anti-vaccine messaging, whereas New Zealand waited for more data before opening the vaccines up to the wider population. That clarity and calm attitude made a significant difference, according to Moffitt.

While it may be too difficult to convince anti-vax adults to get the vaccine, Moffitt says it's a prime time to prepare for the next pandemic. And doing that will be simple: better education on public health from a younger age.

Note: WHQR reached out to several unvaccinated individuals for comment on this story, but all declined to participate.