Liberals in the U.S. more likely to endorse childhood vaccinations

An alarming number of Americans have recently expressed skepticism about the role of childhood vaccinations, despite a repository of evidence that supports the effectiveness of the technique at preventing a number of diseases. Contentions range from relatively mild concerns about overuse and effectiveness to complex yet convoluted conspiracy theories. As a result, immunization rates in the U.S. and other countries have diminished and once-controlled diseases are reemerging as a serious global threat.

Political ideologies appear to be linked to the differing viewpoints, but the relationship has not received a lot of experimental attention. New research by Mitchell Rabinowitz and his colleagues helps to clarify the role of ideology in fostering anti-vaccination perspectives.

As described in a 2016 PLoS publication, this study obtained measurements with a survey completed by 376 individuals via the Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform. Participants were first asked to self-identify as being liberal-minded, conservative or moderate/neutral. Demographic information was also solicited. The remainder of the survey included a variety of statements related to views on childhood vaccinations and ideological beliefs. Subjects responded to these statements using a four-point Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree) and by estimating percentages of the US population that would agree with their choice. Finally, parents were asked if they had vaccinated their own children.

This study yielded several expected findings. “From a public health perspective, a few findings from our study may inspire some degree of optimism. To begin with, liberals, moderates, and conservatives in our sample were all more likely to endorse pro- than anti-vaccination statements and to regard more pro- than anti-vaccination statements as ‘facts’ (as opposed to beliefs),” the researchers explained.

Liberals were significantly more likely to endorse childhood vaccinations and to regard them as fact (as opposed to beliefs) than conservatives or moderates. They also showed a tendency to underestimate the amount of people who agreed with their statements about vaccination, while overestimates of belief agreement were observable in the responses of non-liberal participants. It was also shown that conservative and moderate parents were less likely to report having fully vaccinated their children before the age of two years.

“All of these findings are consistent with prior research demonstrating that liberals in the U.S. tend to be more influenced by scientific expertise and empirical evidence in general, compared to other ideological groups,”¬†Rabinowitz¬†and his colleagues said.

While the authors of this study caution readers against drawing solid conclusions from this research due to the demographics being unrepresentative of the US population at large, the findings still offer a glimpse of how ideological motivations may support varying opinions about childhood vaccinations. Fortunately, a significant majority of respondents from all three ideological groups reported positive opinions of vaccinations and regarded their usefulness as fact.

Still, it is key from a public health perspective that these rates rise and ideally rebound to levels seen in the late 1990s. The identification of conservative and moderate tendencies as being related to dissenting beliefs and non-compliance will aid in the development of better approaches to combating the issue.