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Vaccine Hesitancy About MMR Shots Becoming More Common

Around a quarter (28 percent) of adults expressed vaccine hesitancy about the MMR vaccine, saying getting the shots should be parent choice even if not getting them harms others.

The US is experiencing yet another negative byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic, with new surveying from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) showing enhanced vaccine hesitancy among parents of school-aged kids.

The survey showed that more parents than ever believe there should be no requirement for the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine series to go to public school.

The MMR vaccine is still popular, with 85 percent of parents agreeing that the benefits of these shots outweigh any potential risk from getting them. Seven in 10 parents said healthy children should be required to get the MMR vaccine to attend public schools.

But those figures represent a downswing from pre-pandemic times, the researchers pointed out. Using a 2019 Pew Research Center poll for reference, fewer parents acknowledge the benefits of the MMR vaccine and agree it should be a public school requirement for healthy kids. In 2019, 88 percent of parents believed the benefits outweighed the risks of the MMR vaccine, and 82 percent said the shots should be a public school requirement.

On the flip side, vaccine hesitancy has become more common. In 2019, only 16 percent of parents believed it should be their choice whether their school-aged children get the MMR vaccine, even if not getting the shots could harm other people. That number has grown to 28 percent, the KFF data showed.

That increase is mostly driven by Republicans and Republican-leaning independents; in 2019, 20 percent believed the MMR vaccine should be their choice, compared to 44 percent who asserted as much today.

The KFF researchers suggested that politicizing all vaccines in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, plus pandemic-era decreases in trust in medicine, contribute to these trends. Notably, people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 are among the most likely to say the MMR vaccine should be parent choice, even if not getting the shots could harm other people. Sixty-three percent of those without the COVID vaccine said as much.

Vaccine hesitancy was a concern even before the pandemic, with folks obtaining non-medical exemptions (NMEs) for the measles vaccine causing a measles outbreak in 2019, the likes of which the US hadn’t seen since 1992, according to CDC figures.

But the KFF researchers indicated that the pandemic has heightened those budding sentiments.

“While most of the public continue to have confidence in the benefits of childhood vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella, the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and debates over vaccine requirements and mandates appear to have had an impact on public attitudes towards MMR vaccine requirements for public schools,” the KFF researchers wrote.

Despite MMR vaccine hesitancy, the KFF Vaccine Monitor did show that the COVID-19 bivalent booster is gaining steam. In September 2022, only 5 percent of adults had gotten the updated booster. That number has increased to 22 percent as of December 2022, with 16 percent saying they will get it as soon as possible.

This trend is mostly driven by Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents, plus people who are over age 65.

But there’s been little movement in the number of folks who aren’t eligible for the boosters because they are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated (27 percent), and a fifth of people maintain that they won’t get the booster shots or only get them if they are required.

Still, the data showed that people are worried about the upcoming winter as respiratory illnesses grip the nation. A third of adults said they are worried about getting very sick with COVID-19 themselves, and 49 percent are fearful that there will be an increase in cases and hospitalizations this winter. These concerns are more common among older adults 65 and over and Black and Hispanic people.

People are also worried about kids getting sick, although more so with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and the flu than COVID-19 (in fact, people worried about COVID in kids are in the slight minority at 47 percent).

These increasing concerns about respiratory illness may help propel more people to get the COVID-19 and flu vaccine, but providers should still lean on empathic communication skills to encourage vaccination.

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