Get Regular Updates!


Rejecting vaccines as a way to fit in?

Rejecting vaccines as a way to fit in?

Vaccines have saved millions of lives around the world, but many parents still choose not to vaccinate. Could this phenomenon have something to do with people’s social interactions?

Rejecting vaccines as a way to fit in?

Infectious diseases have caused the death of millions of people since ancient times. Smallpox, for example, likely killed an Egyptian pharaoh back in the year 1157 BCE. Back then, there wasn’t much you could do to avoid catching smallpox, or any other infectious disease, except run away as far and fast as you could from anyone with a cough.

Today, we don’t need to worry too much about infectious disease. For the most serious ones, we have vaccinations, most of which are freely available.

Vaccines have helped drastically reduce infections from diseases like measles, polio, diphtheria and tetanus, just to mention a few. According to the World Health Organization, more than 2.5 million deaths are prevented each year thanks to vaccines. That’s five lives every minute.

But, despite all this, some people still fear vaccines. In fact, some worry more about vaccines than the diseases themselves, says Katie Attwell, Senior Lecturer in Politics in the School of Social Science at UWA and an Honorary Fellow of the Wesfarmers Centre of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases at the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth, who recently published two studies on this issue.

This fear has been linked to different factors, such as misinformation or an aversion towards Western medicine or a desire to live a more natural lifestyle.

But there is a bit more to it.

A way to fit in

In one study published recently, Katie interviewed parents from two areas in Australian with low vaccination rates: Fremantle in WA and specific postcodes in Adelaide. Parents in these two locations were refusing or delaying recommended vaccines for their children, and Katie wanted to know why.

After going through the answers from the interviews, Katie found some interesting results. For example, some parents actually were vaccinating their children but remained quiet about it for fear of rejection within their communities.

While this sounds a bit like peer pressure at play, Katie explains that is a bit more complicated than that.

“All of us are influenced by the people around us, especially when we identify with their beliefs and values. People are making the decisions that feel right to them, but what feels right (or wrong) is being influenced by that peer group,”

“I think peer pressure is part of this story, but I wouldn’t want to use the term in a way that somehow suggests that people are being bullied or coerced to follow the norm,” she says.

“All of us are influenced by the people around us, especially when we identify with their beliefs and values. People are making the decisions that feel right to them, but what feels right (or wrong) is being influenced by that peer group,” she adds.

So for these parents, it is a case of trying to fit into a place where others don’t share their same beliefs.

Some of the parents saw vaccination refusal as a way of being accepted within their social group, Katie explains. Others thought that they were raising healthy enough children who didn’t need vaccinations.

But this is not the right way to think about it. Kids today are healthy because of vaccines, not “just because”.

“Even extremely healthy children with excellent diets, plenty of exercise and strong bodies can be ravaged by vaccine-preventable diseases. The absence of these diseases from developed world settings is due to vaccines,” Katie says.

This young girl in Bangladesh was infected with smallpox in 1973…
. Credit: CDC/James Hicks via Wikipedia
View Larger
Image |

CDC/James Hicks via Wikipedia

This young girl in Bangladesh was infected with smallpox in 1973…
…Thanks to vaccinations the disease has been eradicated
. View Larger
…Thanks to vaccinations the disease has been eradicated

Alternative medicines

In a second study, Katie asked whether there was a link between vaccine refusal and the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

Previous studies have found a link between CAM and vaccine refusal. However, this is the first study to explore in detail the reasons behind this link, and it’s the first study to address this issue in Australia.

The study used answers from the same parents from the Fremantle and Adelaide study. Katie questioned the parents about the use of CAM approaches and whether there was a correlation between the two.

Katie’s key finding was that there was definitely a link, but it was not as simple as saying CAM use causes vaccine refusal.

It’s more about feeling well informed (even if you’re not!).

“If you refuse or reject vaccines, you are possibly likely to want to find another way to protect your children, and that can include CAM. It can also mean that, if you are using CAM, the things that your providers or friends who also use CAM say make you think that this approach is going to protect your children and that you don’t need to vaccinate them,” says Katie.

“We also found that these parents weren’t just going to a CAM provider and let them fix the problem. They would get their advice, then go home, talk to their friends or try cooking things up. They had a lot of confidence on what they were doing, so they can go and say, ‘I know what I’m doing, I can fix this, I have the skills’,” adds Katie.

View Larger
If you are using CAM, the things that your providers or friends who also use CAM say can make you think it’ll protect your children and that you don’t need to vaccinate them

Another issue affecting vaccination rates are CAM practitioners’ views on vaccination. In a separate study, researchers from New Zealand found some very different opinions among healthcare providers regarding the safety of childhood vaccinations. Medical doctors and pharmacists expressed high confidence in vaccines. However, midwives showed confidence levels of 65.1%, while only 13.6% of CAM practitioners expressed confidence in vaccines.

“Practitioners of alternative medicine showed a significantly lower level of vaccine confidence compared to all other classes of health professionals, as well as the general New Zealand public. The relatively lower level of confidence among midwives is also a concerning finding, as they are chosen by most New Zealand women to be their lead maternity carer,” says Carol Lee, a PhD student from the University of Auckland who led the study.

The take-home message is that you should inform yourself and look beyond what your friend or CAM practitioner thinks when it comes to vaccinations.

Deciding not to immunise yourself or your children doesn’t just affect you or your child but also those around you. If you’re still hesitant on vaccines, inform yourself with scientific facts about vaccines, understand the science and make a decision based on the evidence.

Vaccines are no marketing scheme. They work. They protect you from infectious diseases. They save lives. You can check it out for yourself.

WARNING strong language: Penn and Teller on vaccinations

Like all medicines, they’re not perfect and they can come with some side effects, but the risk is very small compared to the benefits.

So the next time you hear your neighbours discussing vaccinations, just take a moment to think about whether you’d like to live in a world where smallpox is still running rampant.

Particle Puns


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy

We've got chemistry. Want something physical?