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Anti-Vaccine Sentiment Is Not The Biggest Factor In Unvaccinated Kids

Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

Measles outbreaks around the country this year focused public attention on the risks of non-vaccination. In many places, anti-vaccine sentiment based on religious beliefs or fears about vaccine safety has been on the rise. And that has many public health researchers concerned.

But anti-vaccine attitudes aren’t the whole story, at least here in Massachusetts. In fact, non-medical exemptions – often called religious exemptions – account for one-third or less of all Massachusetts students who are not fully vaccinated.

What accounts for the rest? It’s just that hard to get to the doctor.

“You have to take a half-day off work,” Nathaniel Fuchs told Living Lab Radio. “If you have two or three kids, then it’s a lot of effort and coordination to get the vaccination.”

Fuchs is a Fulbright Scholar in the Masters of Public Health program at Brown University, and he recently wrote about what he calls the “vaccination gap” for Commonwealth Magazine.

Can’t school nurses force parents to get their children vaccinated? That approach can backfire, Fuchs said. It’s a lot easier to sign the religious exemption form than get a vaccine.

“If you really push hard and say, ‘You really have to get the vaccine today’…they might say, ‘Well, I’m signing the exemption.’”

Fuchs suggested a different solution.

“If you provided vaccinations in schools, as is done around the world in many places and also in the U.S. in certain situations, that'll make it much easier for people to get the vaccine and should deal with a lot of this gap,” he said.

Fuchs highlighted a bill called the Community Immunity Act, which was recently filed in the Massachusetts legislature. It attempts to standardize and centralize immunization and exemption processes for all K-12 schools, summer camps, and colleges and universities throughout the Commonwealth.

The bill is “moving in the right direction,” Fuchs said.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.