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Despite Recent Measles Outbreak, Resistance To Vaccinations Persists

A measles outbreak linked to Disneyland has exposed gaps in immunization against the highly infectious disease.

All told this year, 169 people in 20 states and the District of Columbia were reported sick with measles through May 1, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Childhood vaccination remains a potent public health weapon against the spread of many illnesses, including measles. But objections and worries about vaccination remain, too.

With the recent measles cases in mind, we asked more than 3,000 Americans about their attitudes toward vaccination in the latest NPR Truven Health Analytics Health Poll.

We put the same questions to adults with children living at home and those without kids. We called them on land lines, cellphones and reached them online. Here's what we found.

Adults in 28 percent of households with kids said they had concerns about vaccines compared with about 13 percent in households without kids.

Among the adults with kids at home who had concerns, the top worries were side effects at 36 percent and that vaccines cause illnesses at 27 percent. In households without kids that had vaccine concerns, side effects were the reason expressed by 26 percent and a cause of illnesses at 23 percent. Many households without kids — 19 percent — were also concerned about the public health consequences of kids not getting vaccinated.

We were particularly curious about people's views on whether vaccination exemptions should be allowed for nonmedical reasons. Among households with children, 38 percent supported exemptions based on religious or personal beliefs. In households without children, the support for exemptions was 10 percentage-points lower at 28 percent.

We also asked about compulsory vaccination for kids depending on what type of school they attended. Adults, regardless of whether or not they had kids at home, had the same responses: 91 percent in favor of public schoolchildren getting all mandatory vaccinations unless there was a medical reason not to do so. When the question was broadened to kids in all kinds of schools, the support for mandatory vaccination dropped to 83 percent among households with children compared with 89 percent in households without them.

"Vaccinations have, somewhat surprisingly, emerged as a polarizing topic, and it's clear from these results that some parents are approaching them with trepidation," Dr. Michael Taylor, chief medical officer at Truven Health Analytics, said in a statement. "The very preventable cases we've seen over the last year, such as a spread of measles that were traced back to Disneyland, underscore how important it is that parents not rush into decisions based on misinformation and conjecture."

The overall margin for error for the poll, which was conducted during the first half of March, is plus or minus 1.8 percentage points. You can find the full set of questions and responses here and the results of previous NPR-Truven Health Analytics Health Polls here.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.