Parents are more skeptical about vaccines than those without kids, new study finds

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

With nearly 2 million new COVID-19 vaccination doses administered daily in the U.S., a recent study finds that parents are more reluctant to get themselves inoculated from the coronavirus than people without children.

Researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers found that the skepticism was most pronounced among young mothers who tend to mistrust vaccinations in general, including treatments that prevent childhood diseases like polio. Their reluctance may trigger a clash if schools require COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of returning to in-person learning in the fall.

“That can’t be done yet because vaccines aren’t approved for children,” says David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer and information sciences at Northeastern, and one of the researchers who conducted the study.

“As a parent, you have a different relationship to vaccines than a nonparent,” says David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer and information sciences at Northeastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“But by the fall vaccines may well be approved, and then school systems will confront a policy conundrum if they mandate that children be vaccinated,” he adds.

The national survey of nearly 6,000 people was conducted February 5-28, weeks before Moderna announced it began testing its COVID-19 vaccine in children younger than 12 years old. Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech also are developing a vaccine for children.

Most youngsters with COVID-19 have mild or no symptoms at all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency says babies younger than 1 year might be more likely to develop severe illness from COVID-19.

Children under 21 make up about 25 percent of the U.S. population. If many of them get vaccinated, it raises the chance of herd immunity.

Lazer says it remains to be seen if children’s vaccines are approved by the fall. If not, then schools can’t require them. But if federal regulators sign off on the vaccines by the summer, there will be a narrow window of time between school boards mandating inoculations and parents getting children vaccinated.

“I suspect that this will be all unfolding during the fall once schools are back in session,” he says.

The study found that 39 percent of mothers were unlikely to get themselves or their children inoculated, compared to 45 percent who said they would. Fathers, however, were much more inclined to get themselves and their kids vaccinated.

Researchers didn’t have an explanation for the gender difference, but Lazer speculates that it may be related to anti-vaccination campaigns being targeted more toward moms. “Mothers also tend to make more health-care decisions for their children than fathers,” he adds.

Mothers between 18 and 35 years of age expressed higher vaccine resistance than older mothers (45 percent vs. 35 percent). “Socioeconomic status is correlated with whether you have a child when you’re young,” Lazer explains. “More educated, affluent women are more likely to have children when they are older.”

Fathers were about evenly split regardless of their age. “There’s no young fathers penalty,” adds Lazer, who has children of his own. “Vaccine skepticism is almost identical between younger and older fathers.”

In fact, dads as a whole were more amenable to being vaccinated than men without children, and they are more likely to have been vaccinated already.

Education, income, and race were also factors in vaccine skepticism, in addition to gender.

Seventy-two percent of adults without a four-year college degree reported being hesitant or resistant compared to 55 percent of nonparents. But that gap almost disappears among adults with a degree, the study found.

Parents and nonparents earning less than $75,000 per year expressed markedly different opinions on vaccine acceptance. There was a 10-point gap in vaccine resistance between parents and nonparents earning less than $75,000 annually. Among higher-earning adults, parenthood made little difference.

Still, researchers came away with enough data to support the belief that parental status affects vaccine attitudes.

“As a parent, you have a different relationship to vaccines than a nonparent because you have to think about that in the context of your own child,” Lazer says.

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