February 6, 2017

Parents of young children are more ‘vaccine hesitant’

A solid majority of Americans believe vaccinating their children against measles, mumps and rubella has high preventive health benefits. But several groups – particularly parents of young children – are less convinced of the benefits and more concerned about the safety of the MMR vaccine.

They stand apart from the 73% of Americans who see the MMR vaccine as a benefit, the 66% who say there is a low risk of side effects and the 88% who say the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Further, some 82% of Americans support requiring children attending public school to be vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella because of the potential health risk to others. By contrast, 17% of Americans say parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate and 10% believe the risks outweigh the benefits.

Public health officials place particular importance on the views of parents who must decide whether or not to follow the recommended schedule to immunize their children for measles, mumps and rubella starting when their children are between 12 and 15 months old.

The new survey finds that parents with children ages 4 or younger are more concerned than other Americans about the potential risk of side effects from the MMR vaccine. About half (52%) of parents with children ages 0 to 4 say the risk of side effects is low, while 43% say it is medium or high. By contrast, seven-in-ten adults with no minor-age children (70%) rate the risk of side effects from the vaccine as low. 

On average, parents of young children tend to be younger than the general population. There are some differences in views about vaccines by generation. Adults younger than 30 are less inclined than older age groups to think the benefits of the MMR vaccine outweigh the risks (79% compared with at least 90% of those in older age groups). These age differences are broadly consistent with past Pew Research Center surveys that looked at more general support for requiring childhood vaccines and perceptions of vaccine safety.

Views about the MMR vaccine also differ by race and ethnicity. For example, blacks (44%) are more likely than whites (30%) to say the risk of side effects from the MMR vaccine is either medium or high. Some 56% of blacks rate the preventive health benefits of the MMR vaccine as high, compared with 79% of whites.

Knowledge of science topics is also a factor in distinguishing those who are more concerned about the safety of vaccines. Americans who are high in science knowledge, based on a nine-item index of factual questions covering a range of topics, overwhelmingly rate the risk of side effects from the vaccine as low (79%). By contrast, U.S. adults with low science knowledge are closely divided on whether the risk of side effects is low (50%) or is medium or higher (47%). (More details on the index of science knowledge are available in Chapter 4 and the Methodology section of the related report, “The Politics of Climate.”)

People’s practices in connection with conventional and alternative medicine also tend to align with their views about the MMR vaccine. For example, 8% of Americans report that they never take over-the-counter medications for cold or flu symptoms. This subgroup is closely divided over whether the risk of side effects from the MMR vaccine is low (50%) or at least medium (49%).

More generally, people who report trying alternative medicine instead of conventional medicine see more risk from the MMR vaccine. Alternative medicine is a broad category that includes herbal dietary supplements, acupuncture, chiropractic, energy therapies and others that are not part of what is often called conventional or standard medical care. Some 43% of Americans who have used alternative medicine instead of conventional treatment say the risk of side effects from the MMR vaccine is medium or high. By comparison, 30% of those who report never using alternative medicine or using it in conjunction with conventional medicine say the risk of side effects from the vaccine is medium or high.

Topics: Health Care, Race and Ethnicity, Parenthood, Public Knowledge, Health

  1. Photo of Cary Funk

    is director of science and society research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Christopher Hickie6 months ago

    It’s very simple–when vaccine rates are too low, outbreaks of measles and pertussis will increase. After enough death and disability (sadly to infants and children), more parents will vaccinate. What is sad is that there will be morbidity and mortality to show that anti-vaccinationists are full of crap and lies.

  2. Anonymous7 months ago

    Everyone should think for themselves, but the scientific method provides a rigorous and verifiable approach to addressing controversial questions.

    There happens to be a pretty strong scientific consensus that most childhood vaccines are advisable. For those who choose otherwise, might also consider how you are in the same boat as climate change deniers . . .

  3. Anonymous7 months ago

    Our family is finished with vaccines. We are working now with diet and supplements to undo the damage done. Vaccines are a huge scam. Good products don’t need mandates. In California you can’t send your kids to school unless they are up to date on the CDC schedule which involves 69 vaccine doses. Medical exemptions are “allowed”. Doctors are being threatened with loosing their livelihoods. Good luck on getting a medical exemption because most doctors are afraid. The industry is rigging the system in their favor by buying senators.
    Stop the vaccine mandates. Medical mandates are an abomination.

    1. Anonymous7 months ago

      Glad everyone doesn’t think the way you do . . .

  4. Michael Meitbual7 months ago

    These parents are alive to worry about the safety of vaccines because they were given the vaccines themselves.

    If “alternative” medicine worked, it wouldn’t have a qualifier. We’d call it medicine because medicine produces predictable results.

    1. Anonymous7 months ago

      I am almost 50 and unvaccinated. Like the rest of my family. I think you are misinformed about vaccines and the benign diseases that they supposedly “prevent”.

      1. Anonymous6 months ago

        So you’ll ignore science and evidence based on your anecdotal experience? Yikes! I’m really happy some of us don’t rely on specific personal experiences over facts because we’d probably never solve/cure/discover anything!