Negative childhood experiences linked to people developing antivax sentiments, major study finds

Anti-vaccination views among people stem from adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, maltreatment, or having an alcoholic parent, major new research suggests.

Researchers, including those from the University of Otago in New Zealand, say many adult attitudes, behaviors and traits have their roots in childhood.

In the major study, published in the journal PNAS Nexus last month, scientists assessed how people develop strong anti-vaccination sentiments.

They assessed vaccine resistance beliefs among members of the long-running Dunedin Study, based at the University of Otago, which marks 50 years this month.

The ongoing Dunedin study follows the lives of over 1,000 babies born between 1 April 1972 and 31 March 1973 at Dunedin’s Queen Mary Maternity Hospital in New Zealand since their birth.

It assesses several factors influencing the lives of these individuals, including their physical health, personal experiences, long-standing values, motives, lifestyles, information-processing capacities, as well as emotional tendencies, tracing them as they grow up.

When the researchers surveyed members part of the study about their vaccination intentions between April and July 2021 – just before the national vaccine roll-out began in New Zealand in August 2021 – they found evidence that anti-vaccination views sprung from childhood experiences.

In a recent survey among the decades-long study’s members, they say 90 per cent responded about vaccination intent, of whom 13 per cent did not plan to be vaccinated.

Comparing the early life histories of those who were vaccine-resistant to those who were not, scientists found that many members of the study with vaccine-resistant attitudes had histories of “adverse experiences during childhood.”

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These experiences include abuse, maltreatment, deprivation or neglect, or having an alcoholic parent, scientists noted in The Conversation.

“These experiences would have made their childhood unpredictable and contributed to a lifelong legacy of mistrust in authorities, as well as seeding the belief that “when the proverbial hits the fan you’re on your own,” researchers, including Richie Poulton, Director: Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Research Unit, noted.

Among the vaccine-resistant group, the members’ personality tests at age 18 suggested they were vulnerable to frequent extreme emotions of fear and anger, and they tended to shut down mentally when under stress.

People in this group, scientists say, also felt fatalistic about health, and reported at age 15 that there is “nothing people can do to improve their health.”

This group of people, researchers say, also described themselves as non-conformists, valuing personal freedom and self-reliance over following social norms.

“Dating back to adolescence, many have experienced chronic mental-health conditions that can foster apathy and avoidance, derail healthy decision-making, and even promote susceptibility to conspiracy theories,” scientists wrote in the study.

Members of this group in the study were also poor readers in high school, scoring low on tests of verbal comprehension and processing speed, the study noted.

Even though 13 per cent of the Dunedin study cohort were vaccine-resistant, scientists say a number of factors can help drive up the vaccine coverage rate since, during the Covid-19 pandemic, New Zealand could achieve a near 95 per cent national vaccination rate .

“To develop persuasive pro-vaccination messaging, it is important to know where people are coming from, especially people who end up resistant or hesitant regarding vaccination,” researchers wrote in the study.

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Based on the findings, researchers say there are ways to tailor vaccine messaging for hesitant and resistant groups.

They say education about viruses and vaccines before or during secondary schooling can reduce citizens’ level of uncertainty and help prepare for future pandemics.

Researchers say such a move could provide people with a knowledge framework that can prevent them from developing extreme emotional distress reactions, and also enhance their receptivity to health messages.

Due to the weaker verbal comprehension ability observed among members of the vaccine-hesitant and resistant group, scientists call for clear and simple messaging on vaccines tailored to a modest level of verbal complexity to reach such people in the broader community.

Scientists also call for further studies to better understand the “priors” and information processing style of vaccine-resisters to guide new ways of engaging with the group.

Anti-vaccination messaging researchers say often reinforces themes of suspicion, mistrust, fear, anger, alienation, and conspiracy.

They say it also sensationalises fear of rare side effects, “lionises” anti-establishment nonconformism, and “praises going against the vaccinated herd.’”

It ends up presenting vaccination as a personal choice “that must be exercised to preempt exploitation.”

Scientists conclude that any pro-vaccination health messaging does not just operate in a vacuum, but must compete against such powerful anti-vaccination messaging.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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