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Persistent COVID-19 Vaccine Myths Hamper Immunization for Children


Refractory adult misbeliefs about vaccine safety have increased reluctance to vaccinate US children aged 5-11 years, according to an Annenberg Public Policy center survey.

©Sula Nualpradid/adobe stock
©Sula Nualpradid/adobe stock

Young children are getting COVID-19 vaccinations at far lower rates than adults, a discrepancy due largely to adult misbeliefs regarding the safety of vaccines generally and COVID vaccines in particular.

The study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy center examines the role of adults’ incorrect beliefs regarding both the dangers of taking COVID-19 vaccines themselves and to recommend them for children. According to the study, as of August 2022 77% of American adults had received the initial primary doses of the vaccine. By contrast, only about 30% of children aged 5 to 11 had been vaccinated, even though the Food and Drug Administration had authorized vaccines for that age group in the fall of 2021.

The researchers obtained their data from a survey of 1600 adults conducted in four waves between April 2021 and January 2022. For purposes of the study they defined misinformation as “belief in statements about vaccination that are contrary to the best available evidence as defined by public health authorities.”

The authors found that COVID vaccine hesitancy among adults was associated with incorrect beliefs about vaccines generally, such as that they contain toxins like antifreeze, and about specific vaccines such as that MMR vaccine leads to autism. Misbeliefs specific to COVID vaccines included allegations that they:

  • cause infertility

  • alter the recipient’s DNA

  • are often the cause of allergic reactions, and

  • have led to thousands of deaths

They also found that incorrect beliefs about vaccine safety strongly predicted adult vaccine rates from April to September 2021. Only 40% of those reporting the highest levels of belief in misinformation had received the recommended doses of vaccine by September, compared with 96% of those reporting the lowest levels of belief.

The study showed that misinformation about the safety of vaccines generally, and COVID-19 vaccines in particular, was associated with increased reluctance to recommend vaccinations for children aged 5-11.

The study showed that misinformation about the safety of vaccines generally, and COVID-19 vaccines in particular, was associated with increased reluctance to recommend vaccinations for children aged 5-11.

That was especially the case among households with children younger than age 18. About 40% of adults in those households said they were “not too likely” or “not at all likely” to recommend the vaccine for children, compared with 29% of all those surveyed. Doubts about recommending the vaccination for children included adults who had themselves been vaccinated, according to the study.

“All of the misconceptions we studied focused in one way or another on the safety of vaccination, and that explains why people’s misbeliefs about vaccinating kids are so highly related to their concerns about vaccines in general,” Dan Romer, PhD, the study’s lead author, said in an accompanying news release. “Unfortunately, those concerns weigh even more heavily when adults consider vaccinating children.”

Reference: Romer D, Winnega KM, Jamieson PE, Brensinger C, Jamieson KH. Misinformation about vaccine safety and uptake of COVID-19 vaccines among adults and 5–11-year-olds in the United States. Vaccine. Published online September 22, 2022. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2022.09.046

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