Prof. Maya Goldenberg
Prof. Maya Goldenberg

Philosophy professor Maya Goldenberg is investigating why a recent push by health authorities to promote the importance of immunizations has done little to prevent parents from thinking twice when it comes to vaccinating their children.

“I want to know what is keeping the public from trusting health authorities who are telling them vaccines are safe,” she says.

Goldenberg became interested in the topic after researching the famous science scandal of British researcher Andrew Wakefield. His 1998 study linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism was the main catalyst behind vaccine resistance and hesitancy among parents in the United Kingdom, the United States and to some degree Canada.

Although the study was found to be fraudulent in 2010, the impact of the research continues to influence parents.

“The most current data shows that up to 40 per cent of Americans are either refusing to vaccinate their children or employing an alternative vaccine schedule, which means they are spreading vaccines out, separating combined vaccines or delaying vaccines until their children are older,” says Goldenberg.

In addition to Wakefield’s study, there have been other contributing factors in recent years that have led North American parents to be skeptical about the safety of vaccines, she adds.

In the early 1990s, information was released about a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosol used in some vaccines. This sparked concern among parents not only because the vaccines contained a mercury preservative but also because of theories linking thimerosol to autism, says Goldenberg. Also, new vaccines such as the chickenpox vaccine have led parents to question why we don’t let kids contract the actual disease as generations have done in the past, she says.

To help counteract the anti-vaccine sentiments, further scientific studies have been conducted showing no correlation between vaccines and autism, and health authorities have focused their efforts on promoting the safety of immunizations to the public.

“But the problem of vaccine hesitancy still persists,” says Goldenberg.

As part of her research, she has been studying recent information released by health officials. This includes medical literature to physicians with advice on how to deal with patients hesitant about vaccines, as well as promotional materials aimed at the public such as pamphlets, newsletters and websites on the safety of vaccines.

She has also examined information put out by vaccine critics, autism organizations and parent groups about their concerns.

“It’s a lively debate,” says Goldenberg. “I wanted to get a handle on how the problem is being framed, so I can examine how the solution is being rolled out by health officials.”

In her investigation, she found that government health institutions are assuming the public is ignorant about vaccines, and their strategy has been to simply educate the public on vaccine safety.

“But my perception is that they are missing the target,” says Goldenberg. “The information they are giving is not what the public is concerned about.”

Intertwined within all this information about vaccine safety is a line or two about the small percentage of people who experience adverse effects, she says.

“It’s treated like a footnote, but that’s what parents are looking at. They are wondering if my child is going to be the one affected. Parents don’t care about the population risk, but rather the individual risk.”

In her upcoming research paper, Goldenberg suggests health authorities should address concerns about the small percentage at risk of adverse effects by showing how they have made the vaccines safer.

“They need to show how they have lowered the risk instead of just telling parents vaccines are safe.”

Health officials should also put more effort into investigating what makes certain people more susceptible to adverse reactions, she says.

There are theories about some children being more at risk, such as those with milk or egg allergies, but critics claim these theories have not been properly tested. If these theories have been studied, government institutions should focus on publicizing the results, says Goldenberg.

“Right now theories like this don’t get enough attention from government institutions because they have a public mandate. Health authorities need to start listening to the public’s concerns so that they can effectively respond to them.”