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Why Are U.S. Vaccination Rates Dropping?

Author cites erosion of public trust and of social ties

Vaccines have been used safely and effectively for decades. So why is the American public –– or at least a significant segment of it –– now increasingly skeptical of mandatory school vaccinations? One possible reason for this trend is that as vaccination rates have fallen, so have civic engagement and public trust in the government and the medical profession, according to an article posted on the Conversation website.

In 2014 there was a record number of measles cases (668) since the disease was considered eliminated in 2000, with researchers placing the blame on declining vaccination rates, author Charles McCoy, an assistant professor of sociology at SUNY Plattsburgh, writes.

Several states, such as Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Washington, have experienced significant decreases in their vaccination rates that put them well below “herd immunity” (the threshold at which enough people are immune to a disease so that transmission chains are broken). In Seattle, the polio vaccination rate (81.4%) is lower than that in Rwanda.

McCoy quotes Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, which argues that since the middle of the 20th century, Americans have become increasingly distant from one another. And as we have become less civically engaged, our trust in other people has decayed.

Americans also trust institutions less and less, McCoy writes. In 1964, 77% of the population said that they had trust that those in the federal government would do what was right; by 2014 that number had fallen to 24%.

The same trend can be seen in trust for the medical profession, according to McCoy. Research has shown that in 1966, 73% of the population trusted the leaders of the medical profession; by 2012 this had fallen to 34%, and less than one-quarter (23%) of the population had confidence in the U.S. health care system as a whole. This lack of trust puts the U.S. near the bottom among industrialized nations. In terms of trust in doctors, the U.S. ranked 24 out of 29 countries surveyed.

Distrust of the government is one of the main arguments of the current anti-vaccination movement, McCoy points out.

“Achieving high rates of vaccination –– above the 90% that ensures herd immunity –– requires that the community think of themselves as being in it together. Everyone gets vaccinated so that everyone is protected. When trust breaks down, that medical social contract we’ve historically had with one another starts to dissolve,” he writes.

Source: The Conversation; July 24, 2015.


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