How do attitudes towards the government influence vaccine behaviors?

by Rebecca Israel, MS

October 09, 2020

  • Parents who distrust the government are less likely to fully vaccinate their children.

  • Parents who distrust the government are more likely believe that vaccines are nonessential for their children.

  • Parents who distrust the government are more likely to receive information about vaccines from anti-vaccination organizations.

vaccine and distrust title

As the United States becomes more and more divided, we are seeing the effects seep into our daily lives. We suffer in our relationships and businesses. Healthcare is one of the main topics of disagreement. Is private insurance or medicare-for-all better? Why do prescriptions cost so much? Fundamental differences in healthcare opinions have made our system more fragile than ever.

Trust plays a role in each of these disagreements. Should you trust medical recommendations from the government? How do you know that your doctor was not bought out by big pharma? These questions are real and run through the minds of many Americans. In the case of vaccines, the disagreement hurts everyone.

Hurdles to herd immunity

Herd Immunity: A situation in which a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease to make its spread from person to person unlikely. Even individuals not vaccinated are offered some protection because the disease has little opportunity to spread within the community.


Herd immunity is vital in reducing the spread of disease and protecting those who can not protect themselves. Researchers wanted to examine the barriers to herd immunity by assessing parental trust in the government.

How does trust in government influence parental likelihood of vaccinating themselves and their children?

Source: Hurdles to herd immunity: Distrust of government and vaccine refusal in the US, 2002–2003

Researchers received the completed surveys of 1,253 parents from 112 private and public elementary schools in Colorado, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Washington from 2002 to 2003. Children were either vaccinated or stated a non-medical exemption from vaccination. A non-medical exemption means that the parents got permission to send their non-vaccinated child to school from a source other than their doctor.

The survey measured trust in government and public health messaging. It also recorded their beliefs about complementary or alternative medicines (CAM). CAM are therapies that are not medically sound or supported by evidence.

Parents who distrust in the government are more likely to seek alternative medicine and not fully vaccinate their children.

Education and age were similar across all groups. Interestingly, Parents who distrust the government attended religious services less often than those who trust in the government. Overall, those who distrust the government were significantly more likely to believe and behave against the advice of public offices. Some not only believe that government vaccine information is unreliable, but that it goes against the best interest of their child.

Vaccine beliefs of those who distrust in the government

Who can you trust?

This study supports the theory that government distrust is a barrier to herd immunity. Those who distrust the government are more likely to believe and behave with disregard of the government's vaccine recommendations. It is important for community leaders to understand these beliefs before attempting to change them. Addressing these beliefs is necessary to ensure herd immunity and protect those who are medically ineligible for vaccinations.

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