Despite thorough debunkings of the purported links between vaccinations and autism, plenty of parents are still conflicted about whether or not to adhere to the CDC's guidelines. In the county where I live—King County, in Washington state—vaccination rates are below the national average, and, not-so-coincidentally, we're also experiencing pertussis and measles outbreaks. So where are parents getting advice to opt out of vaccinations? Their social networks, natch. I mean, that lady from Zumba gave me really good advice about whether or not my mole looked funky, so why not prioritize her opinion over my doctor's when it comes to major public health decisions affecting immunocompromised children who just want to go to school without dying of mumps?
A study of 196 King County parents with kids 18 months and younger found that 95% consulted their "people network" when making decisions about vaccinations. Of the 196, 126 stuck with the CDC vaccination schedule. The remaining 70 either delayed vaccines, skipped some vaccines, or eschewed vaccination altogether. Researchers asked the participants to list the sources they consulted when making decisions—12% of "nonconformers" didn't include their doctors in the top five. The general opinions of all parents' "people networks" had an overwhelming influence on their eventual decisions.
72% of nonconformers’ friends and relatives advised them to disregard CDC recommendations compared with just 13% of conformers’ friends and family members. In other words, says study author Emily Brunson, changing parents’ attitudes about vaccines may be a matter of influencing the people who are influencing parents in the first place.
The significance of naysayers parents’ networks “blew any other variable out of the water,” says Brunson, who conducted the research as an anthropology graduate student at the University of Washington. “It was more important in terms of predicting what parents decide to do than any other factor, including parents’ own opinions."
The effect was overwhelming, particularly for parents whose network mostly recommended not following immunization guidelines; they were more than 1,500 times more likely to not adhere to the CDC’s vaccination schedules for their children than other parents.
Community is vital, and I wouldn't expect parents to disregard the opinions of their closest, most trusted family and friends. But as the above Time article points out, grassroots efforts to educate parents about vaccinations—on a local scale, within the community—have seen some encouraging success. So, as much as social networks can be used to spread misinformation, they're also a useful tool for debunking it.
“For people to be passionate and credible and persuasive about this, they have to be local community members,” says Kris Sheedy of the CDC’s immunization-services division. “We know that birds of a feather flock together, so it’s a good thing to make vaccinating parents more visible."
Bottom line: Kids in 2013 should not be suffering and dying from preventable diseases. Parents of immunocompromised children—who, for medical reasons, are unable to receive vaccines—should not be afraid of sending their kids to school because other parents are taking bad science to heart. Jeopardizing public health based on debunked studies, or what "feels right," or Jenny McCarthy's hunches, is entitled and destructive. As alarming as studies like this are, if we can understand the flow of misinformation, maybe we can interrupt it.
Photo credit: Getty.