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Conservatives less likely to trust vaccines and public health efforts

FILE - Doses of the swine flu intranasal vaccine were delivered to the Spokane County Regional Health District in 2009. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - Doses of the swine flu intranasal vaccine were delivered to the Spokane County Regional Health District in 2009. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

New Age liberals may have been unfairly blamed for the current wave of anti-vaccine sentiment, according to a new study from the University of Idaho.

Self-identified conservatives are actually less likely to support vaccination than their more liberal counterparts, researchers Bert Baumgaertner, Juliet Carlisle, and Florian Justwan concluded in a study, published Jan. 25 in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One. The trio are professors in UI’s department of politics and philosophy.

They found conservatives were less likely to indicate they would get vaccinated if they were missing routine immunizations even if the disease was circulating in their community.

Conservatives were also less likely to say they trusted government medical experts, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for information about health, a finding researchers were expecting.

“Conservatives tend to have some skepticism … towards the government,” Carlisle said, though she acknowledged that can change depending on which political party is in power.

Regardless of their own ideology, people typically trusted their primary care providers as a source of medical information.

Their analysis is based on a nationally representative online survey of 1,006 people conducted in early 2017.

Because many of the respondents were vaccinated as children, researchers asked them to consider whether they would choose vaccinations in two hypothetical situations, one low-risk and one high-risk.

First, they asked people to imagine they were missing shots for measles, whooping cough or flu but there was no risk of infection in their community. Then, they asked them to imagine they were missing the same vaccines, but there was now an outbreak of each disease in their community.

In both cases, respondents said how likely they would be to get vaccinated on a five-point scale, with a sixth option for “I don’t know.”

When results for all three diseases and both risk scenarios were combined, strong conservatives scored 17 percentage points lower on the scale than liberals, suggesting they were significantly less likely to choose vaccination.

Willingness to vaccinate didn’t change when risk of infection with a disease was higher, a finding that surprised researchers. Baumgaertner said they’re working on a follow-up study that makes the risks of being unvaccinated more explicit in the question’s phrasing.

“Our hypothesis is that people will become more likely to vaccinate,” he said. They also plan to ask parents about their choice to vaccinate their children.

Their analysis controlled for age, gender, race, income and education, though they found generally that older people had more negative views about immunization and wealthier people had more positive views.

A portion of the difference in willingness to vaccinate was because conservatives were also less likely to trust government medical experts, but some of the reduction was purely due to ideology, the study found.

Justwan said distrust of government health information may be influenced by partisan news sources, which is often where people receive government health information.

“There might be some differences in how those outlets talk about vaccination,” Justwan said. The trio is working on follow-up research looking at specific media outlets and whether those are related to attitudes about vaccines.

Their analysis challenges the public health approach to vaccine opposition, which is often based on the idea that people who choose not to vaccinate themselves or their children are unaware of the risks of disease.

Public information campaigns that try to educate people using government medical sources may inadvertently be cementing anti-vaccine attitudes, rather than challenging them.

“Some individuals might even be repelled by that, whereas they wouldn’t if that information came from a doctor,” Baumgaertner said.

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