How to persuade parents to vaccinate children: new study

aAs doctors and public health officials continue to try to persuade parents to vaccinate their children against childhood diseases, the pleas don’t always help much. Currently, only 69.7% of two-year-olds in the US have received their full vaccination series, including vaccinations against measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, polio, and more, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 10.1% of children aged six months to four years are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Part of the problem is the vociferous anti-vaccination movement in the US and a lack of access to adequate health care. But another problem may be that the most effective pro-vaccine communicators are not used. That’s according to a new study in the journal Pediatrics– which focused primarily on COVID-19 vaccines, but impacts all vaccine campaigns – if you want to convince parents to vaccinate their children, the most convincing arguments may not come from healthcare professionals, but from other trusted parents .

In the study, the researchers assigned 898 white, black, and Latinx parents in Chicago — whose children had not yet received COVID-19 vaccines — to one of four groups. Each group was instructed to read a different message about COVID-19 vaccinations, after which parents were asked whether it was “not likely”, “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to have their child vaccinated :

  • One of the messages, called the “well tolerated” message, asked parents to do just that imagine a doctor or nurse contacting them to encourage them to get their child vaccinatedadding that “children can sometimes have side effects… such as body aches and fever. But this does not happen to all children and the effects only last for a day or two.”
  • The second message, labeled “safe and tested,” asked parents to do just that imagine the same scenario, but this time the doctor or nurse stressed that the COVID-19 vaccine had been tested “around the United States [and] that the vaccine is effective and as safe as other vaccines given to children.”
  • The third message, called “trusted parent,” asked the parents to do just that imagine if they learned from other parents they trust that they had vaccinated their own children against COVID-19. “Some of them say that at first they were not sure whether the vaccine is safe for children,” the message read, “but in the end they decided that this was the best way to fight COVID-19 and the vaccination went well. They want to protect their children.”
  • The fourth group read a control message that simply told parents that the COVID-19 vaccine was available and recommended for children.

The differences between the groups were clear. In total, 37.5% of the people who read the check message said afterwards that it was very likely that they would have their child vaccinated. The message ‘well tolerated’ performed slightly better at 41.5%. Parents who read that the vaccine was “safe and tested” came to 48.9%. But for the trusted parent scenario — the only one in which the vaccine message came from a non-medical professional — the “highly likely” figure was 53.3%.

“This study tells us that parents really value what they hear from other parents they trust when it comes to decisions about vaccinating their children,” said Marie Heffernan, lead author of the paper and assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg. Medical Faculty. “The current study was in the context of the COVID-19 vaccine for children, but we can also think of this in terms of other routine childhood vaccinations.”

Not all findings were uniform in the sample group. Ethnicity in particular made a difference. For example, in the “trusted parent” scenario, 61.1% of white parents said they were very likely to vaccinate their child, compared to 51.6% of Latinx parents and 49.9% of black parents. Each of the other scenarios saw similar percentages by ethnicity.

Heffernan was not surprised by those results and believes history is at least partly to blame. “We know that the historical context of medical research in the US has led to distrust of medical research among communities of color,” she says. “This mistrust is justified and it is important that we in pediatrics, public health and medicine continue to work to build that trust.”

The study does not conclude that pro-vaccine messages from healthcare providers are of no value at all. The relatively high scores among the people who read the ‘safe and tested’ message indicate that parents do listen to what their doctors and nurses tell them. But it can help even more if those medical authorities have children of their own and pass this on to the parents. “In some cases, a caregiver, such as a doctor or nurse, can also be a trusted parent,” says Heffernan. “Our results tell us that health care providers may be more effective at changing minds if, for example, they mention that they have encouraged their own family members to get vaccinated.”

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at

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