May 16, 2023 - Health

Public trusts childhood vaccines but support for school mandates wanes

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Americans are much more confident in routine childhood vaccines than COVID-19 shots, but support for vaccine requirements in schools has slipped from pre-pandemic levels, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

Why it matters: Responses from the study of more than 10,000 adults suggest that vaccine hesitancy around COVID hasn't fueled significantly wider anti-vax sentiment.

  • But the share who say parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children now stands at 28%, up 12 points from four years ago.

What they found: 88% of Americans believe the benefits of childhood vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella outweigh the risks, compared to 62% who have the same views about COVID-19 vaccines.

  • 70% say healthy children should be required to be vaccinated in order to attend public schools, down from 82% in 2019 and 2016.
  • There are major partisan splits over school requirements, with 57% of Republicans supporting them, down from 79% before the pandemic. White evangelical Protestants, in particular, have become much less supportive.
  • Democrats’ support has held steady over the last four years, at around 85%.
  • Fewer than half of U.S. adults (45%) believe the preventative health benefits of COVID-19 vaccines are high. And a majority of adults (58%) see a medium to high risk of side effects attached to the COVID shots.

The end of the COVID-19 public health emergency has left Americans in roughly three groups when it comes to COVID vaccination decisions, the study found.

  • Roughly a third are enthusiastic about vaccines and up-to-date, while a similar, more ambivalent share is fully vaccinated but not recently boosted. A smaller segment (21%) has deep doubts about the shots.
  • While the COVID vaccines have been hailed as game-changers that showcased the power of biomedical science, most respondents at least somewhat agree with the statement “we don’t really know if there are serious health risks from the COVID-19 vaccines.”

Between the lines: The study found doctors remain a trusted source of information, with most adults saying they have a lot (45%) or some (43%) confidence in their physician or other health care provider to give accurate information about measles, mumps and rubella vaccines.

  • Concerns about potential dangers are more pronounced for mothers than fathers, with about half of mothers with a child under age 18 rating the risk of side effects from MMR vaccines as medium or high, a full 15 percentage points higher than the share of fathers with those views.
  • While Americans make distinctions between vaccines, study authors still found a strong link between COVID-19 vaccination status and MMR vaccine views. For example, 68% of adults who didn't get a COVID-19 vaccine say the statement “I worry that not all of the childhood vaccines are necessary” describes their own views very or somewhat well.
  • The report is based on a survey of 10,701 U.S. adults conducted March 13-19.
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