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Why Aren't Parents Getting Their Children Vaccinated?


Doctors and disease experts are battling to contain the nation's largest measles outbreak since the virus was deemed eliminated in 2000. And one vital part of their work is education. In some communities, there is still resistance to vaccinations.

And let's explore that a bit with Jennifer Reich. She's a sociology professor who wrote the book "Calling The Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines." Professor, thanks for being here.

JENNIFER REICH: Thanks so much for having me.

GREENE: So in this whole conversation, we've heard the term anti-vaxxers a lot. You use the term vaccine hesitancy. What do you mean by that?

REICH: In all of the groups of parents that work to even oppose vaccine mandates, none of them would call themselves anti-vaccine. Rather, where parents are describing themselves is committed to informed consent and supportive of individual choice when it comes to their children's health. And I try to be true to the way parents describe themselves when it comes to this important topic.

GREENE: So it's philosophical, in many cases. It's like, it is our right to decide. It's protecting that right, you're saying.

REICH: Yeah. What I find is that parents see each and every vaccine as a different kind of choice and that they see each of their children as unique. And therefore, they want to be able to tailor what they see as what's most important to their own child, whether it's how they perceive the benefits of that vaccine or the risks to their child of that vaccine. I've talked to families that give different children in the family different vaccines or come up with different schedules for each child in their family because they don't accept a logic that there's sort of a one-size-fits-all schedule that's reflect - that they see reflected in how the CDC promotes vaccines.

Now, it's worth reminding you that we do vaccines in a way that has been shown to be scientifically the most efficacious and the safest and also the easiest to distribute at a national level. But for parents who really prioritize each child in their family as an individual, they don't accept this kind of logic.

GREENE: I want to play one voice we've heard in covering this. It's Dr. Joseph Kaplovitz. He's a pediatrician in New York's Orthodox Jewish community, which has been hit hard by this outbreak. And this is what he told reporters about why some people there have been avoiding vaccinations.


JOSEPH KAPLOVITZ: Some of the misinformation is that it causes autism, that the vaccines contain mercury, that the disease itself will actually protect them from cancer, that the disease themself will protect them from eczema.

GREENE: I mean, people who truly believe some of those things to their core and don't trust others to say what is right for their children - like, what can be done?

REICH: You know, I think - what I - one of the things I try to point to in my work on this topic is that the vaccine decision does not live in isolation. We have spent the last 20 years convincing individuals that if they work hard and make informed decisions, they can avoid disease. If they breastfeed or if they manage their children's nutrition, if they eat organic food, if they choose good schools, that their children will be better off for each individual consumption choice.

And if we start with this kind of larger logic, that you should always worry about your own children but you're not responsible for other children in your own community, then we get into the situation where parents really see themselves as the best able to evaluate risks and benefits. And it becomes harder and harder to have these kinds of community-wide discussions.

I would say everything that Dr. Kaplovitz is saying is - are things that I've heard in secular communities, as well. There's lots of questions about both the importance of vaccines, the long-term safety - not just about autism, but about longer-term autoimmune disease, about the safety, about the fact that some vaccines wane, about what exposures in the body might do to children in the long run. And parents often see that less is more, that avoiding this is the safest course.

And related to that, a lot of parents point out that if their children do become sick, they feel really confident in their ability to manage that illness because they have resources, because they have good nutrition and because they're committed to supporting their children in the best way possible.

GREENE: Jennifer Reich is a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Denver. She's also author of the book "Calling The Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines."

Professor, thanks so much.

REICH: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.