Call them anti-science. Call them conspiracy theorists. Call them paralyzed with fear. Just don’t call parents who refuse life-saving vaccines for their children stupid, says Emma Green in this month’s Atlantic. Green spoke with Michigan State University professor Mark Largent about the sources of vaccine anxiety — namely, the medical establishment, pharmaceutical companies, and government — which all contribute to parental perceptions of an imbalance of power. Largent’s research shows that, as a group, vaccine refusers “show tremendously high trust in medical communities”:

“Who don’t they trust? The feds, and pharma.” This research, along with rhetoric from recent political fights, suggests some parents may feel uncertain about vaccines partly because they’re skeptical of pharmaceutical companies, whose profit motives mix with their vaccine-promotion campaigns. And while state governments can mandate immunization, this may end up pushing parents away from the public-school system if they feel that regulations are forcing them to make certain decisions about their children’s health.


High trust in educated, articulate, and empathetic providers of health care should trump feelings of distrust of pharmaceutical companies profit motives and governmental public health policies. You would think. But Green says physicians and other health care providers don’t even begin to balance the scales in favor of immunization for the most skeptical parents:

To put it another way, doctors and medical researchers have a lot of control over what happens to people’s kids. These scientists have training and expertise that’s inaccessible to the general public, and the way they use their knowledge can define a child’s health and life. Faced with this imbalance of power and information, who can blame parents for being nervous and striking out on the Internet for a second opinion?


This begins to explain the difficulty pediatricians often have in bringing objective science to our conversations about vaccine safety and efficacy, and convincing parents to do the right thing and protect their own children, and the public at large, by vaccinating completely, and on time.

Vaccine deniers are not cut from the same cloth as anti-science climate change deniers, for example, who tend to be frustratingly oblivious to scientific facts and reason. Instead, vaccine refusers seem to be keeping a wary eye on corporate profit motives that drive capitalism, as well as harboring a fear that the government is taking choices away.  Green says providers can learn by engaging with anti-vaxxers and understanding where their fears come from:

Empathizing with vaccine-skeptical parents is not the same as equivocation. From a public-health standpoint, parents should get their kids immunized against diseases. But Largent’s argument is that public-health efforts are more humane, and likely more effective, when they’re undertaken with an eye toward the feelings of powerlessness that can come along with these kinds of medical decisions.


Showing empathy surely helps parents feel better about most things in pediatrics; whether it results in higher vaccination rates is uncertain.