Almost 8 in 10 U.S. adults have received their primary COVID-19 vaccine series, but only 31% of children ages 5 to 11 have done the same, according to a new report based on late September figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The reason for the discrepancy? A willingness to accept safety misinformation, say researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
The researchers found that U.S. adult hesitancy to receive COVID-19 vaccines was associated with misbeliefs about vaccines in general — notions that they may contain toxins, and false fears about specific vaccines like the measles, mumps and rubella shot (MMR). But even those who had themselves been vaccinated might hesitate to vaccinate their children.
"All of the misconceptions we studied focused in one way or another on the safety of vaccination, and that explains why people's misbeliefs about vaccinating kids are so highly related to their concerns about vaccines in general," said lead author Dan Romer, research director for the policy center.
"Unfortunately, those concerns weigh even more heavily when adults consider vaccinating children," he said in a university news release.
The researchers used data from four waves of a national survey of more than 1,600 adults. They were questioned in April, June and September 2021 and January 2022. The last wave happened after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization to COVID vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds. For the latest vaccination rates, click here.
Participants were asked about their COVID and vaccine knowledge, beliefs and behaviors. Vaccination rates among the respondents ranged from 31% in April 2021 to 71% in September 2021 and 74% in January 2022.
Misinformation about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine increased the reluctance of even vaccinated adults to recommend COVID-19 vaccination for 5- to 11-year-olds.
Among the COVID-specific misconceptions were claims that the vaccines might cause infertility, of which there is no evidence, or that they might change a person's DNA, which is false. Other concerns were that the vaccines frequently cause allergic reactions, which are actually rare, and that the vaccines were riskier than getting COVID, which is false. Some worried the vaccines were responsible for thousands of deaths. There is no evidence of this.
About 55% of all survey panelists said in January 2022 that they were very likely to recommend vaccinating children ages 5 to 11, while only 44% of parents with children younger than 18 affirmed that. As the probability of recommending vaccination increased, belief in vaccine misinformation decreased.
"Concerns about vaccine safety are clearly a powerful predictor of reluctance to vaccinate oneself and children," said co-author Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
"It is easy to understand why adults would be particularly concerned about adverse reactions, impacts on the DNA, the potential fertility of children, and the possibility that a vaccine might contain toxins or cause autism. Allaying these unwarranted concerns should be a public health priority," Jamieson said in the release.
The study found less support for COVID vaccination of children among Black and Hispanic respondents, evangelical Christians, Republicans and women, as well as the parents of children 12 to 17.
Vaccines protect against hospitalization in children for more than 20 weeks and can reduce the risk of infection, the researchers pointed out.
The findings were published Oct. 1 online in the journal Vaccine.