Anti-Vaxxers Are Hung Up on Moral Values of Purity and Liberty

A children's doctor injects a vaccine against measles, rubella, mumps and chicken pox into an infant on February 26, 2015, in Berlin. A new study shows that parents' hesitancy to vaccinate their children may spring from moral concerns about purity and liberty. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Parents who are hesitant to vaccinate their children may not respond to the traditional messaging around vaccines because of the moral values underpinning their choices, according to research published Monday in Nature Human Behavior.

Hundreds of parents filled out an online survey about their attitudes toward vaccines and six sets of moral values, including protection from harm, attitude toward authority, loyalty, liberty, purity and fairness.

Interestingly, two values that may have seemed obviously linked to vaccine hesitancy—protection from harm, given that many parents believe vaccines may pose a risk to their children; and fairness, given conversations around vaccine companies' profits—were not statistically significant between the groups of parents. Instead, being hesitant about vaccines was more associated with believing they infringed upon the values of liberty or purity.

"Harm and fairness—those are values that we kind of underscore in our traditional arguments" to encourage people to vaccinate, one of the researchers at Emory University who wrote the paper, Avnika Amin, told Newsweek. Amin is working on her doctorate in epidemiology. "Thinking about the concept of herd immunity, everyone should get vaccinated, it's not fair, you want to keep your child from getting sick and being harmed. Those are conventional ideals."

But if Amin's research is any indication, healthcare professionals who want to encourage parents to vaccinate may need to take a different tack—one that's customized to the parent's particular set of values and concerns.

"In an ideal world, it would be wonderful if physicians could sit down and have a 30- or 40-minute conversation, a really thorough conversation with their patients and address their concerns. In reality it may not be possible," she noted.

University of Miami pediatrician Judith L. Schaechter, left, gives an HPV vaccination to a 13-year-old girl in her office at the Miller School of Medicine on September 21, 2011, in Miami. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The study couldn't determine if these values caused the vaccine hesitancy, but that may not be important for doctors who are working with parents who are already vaccine-shy.

Though Amin and her team haven't tested any particular scripts for health care providers to use to talk to parents who may be hesitant about vaccines, Amin said listening to what a parent says with these values in mind might help. Emphasizing that vaccines work with a child's natural immune responses to diseases or that vaccines are created in sterile environments might help reassure a parent with concerns about purity. Mentioning that vaccines can allow a child to play freely with other children without running the risk of contracting a disease might be best suited for a parent with liberty-based concerns.

"Hesitancy is a spectrum. Most people aren't going to be 100 percent against all vaccines and refuse to engage in conversations. That's one very small portion of the spectrum," Amin said. "Taking a moment and realizing that everyone is on the same side, we all want what is best for the child—I think that is the best place to start."