Everything You Need to Know About Anti-Vaxxers

On the Demographics, Values, and Worldview of this Population

Jenny McCarthy, a wealthy white woman, epitomizes the race and class privilege found among anti-vaxxers.
Jenny McCarthy speaks at the Green Our Vaccines press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on June 4, 2008 in Washington, DC. Paul Morigi/WireImage

Per the CDC, during January 2015, there were 102 reported cases of measles across 14 states; most linked to an outbreak at Disney Land in Anaheim, California. In 2014, a record 644 cases were reported across 27 states--the highest number since measles was considered eliminated in 2000. The majority of these cases were reported among unvaccinated individuals, with more than half located in an Amish community in Ohio.

According to the CDC this resulted in a dramatic 340 percent increase in measles cases between 2013 and 2014.

Despite the fact that ample scientific research has disproven the falsely asserted connection between Autism and vaccinations, increasing numbers of parents are choosing to not vaccinate their children for a number of preventable and potentially fatal diseases, including measles, polio, meningitis, and whooping cough. So, who are the anti-vaxxers? And, what motivates their behavior?

Pew Research Center found in a recent study of the difference between scientists' and the public's views on key issues that just 68 percent of U.S. adults believe that childhood vaccinations should be required by law. Digging deeper into this data, Pew released another report in 2015 that sheds more light on views on vaccinations. Given all the media attention to the purported wealthy nature of anti-vaxxers, what they found might surprise you.

Their survey revealed that the only key variable that significantly shapes whether one believes vaccinations should be required or be the decision of parents is age. Young adults are much more likely to believe that parents should have the right to choose, with 41 percent of those 18-29 years old claiming this, compared with 30 percent of the overall adult population.

 They found no significant effect of classrace, gender, education, or parental status.

However, Pew's findings are limited to views on vaccines. When we examine practices--who is vaccinating their children versus who is not--very clear economic, educational, and cultural trends emerge.

Anti-Vaxxers are Predominantly Wealthy and White

Several studies have found that recent outbreaks among unvaccinated populations have been clustered among upper and middle-income populations. A study published in 2010 in Pediatrics that examined a 2008 measles outbreak in San Diego, CA found that "reluctance to vaccinate...was associated with health beliefs, particularly among well-educated, upper- and middle-income segments of the population, similar to those seen in measles outbreak patterns elsewhere in 2008" [emphasis added]. An older study, published in Pediatrics in 2004, found similar trends, but in addition, tracked race. The researchers found, "Unvaccinated children tended to be white, to have a mother who was married and had a college degree, [and] to live in a household with an annual income exceeding 75,000 dollars."

Writing in Los Angeles Times, Dr. Nina Shapiro, Director of Pediatric Ear, Nose, and Throat at the Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA, used data from Los Angeles to reiterate this socio-economic trend.

She noted that in Malibu, one of the city's wealthier areas, one elementary school reported that just 58 percent of kindergartners were vaccinated, as compared to 90 percent of all kindergartners across the state. Similar rates were found at other schools in wealthy areas, and some private schools had just 20 percent of kindergartners vaccinated. Other unvaccinated clusters have been identified in wealthy enclaves including Ashland, OR, and Boulder, CO.

Anti-Vaxxers Trust in Social Networks, Not Medical Professionals

So, why is this predominantly wealthy, white minority choosing to not vaccinate their children, thereby putting at risk those who are under-vaccinated due to economic inequality and legitimate health risks? A 2011 study published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that parents who chose to not vaccinate did not believe vaccines to be safe and effective, did not believe their children at risk of the disease in question, and had little trust in the government and medical establishment on this issue.

The 2004 study cited above found similar results.

Importantly, a 2005 study found that social networks exerted the strongest influence in the decision to not vaccinate. Having anti-vaxxers in one's social network makes a parent significantly less likely to vaccinate their children. This means that as much as non-vaccination is an economic and racial trend, it is also a cultural trend, reinforced through the shared values, beliefs, norms, and expectations common to one's social network.

Sociologically speaking, this collection of evidence points to a very particular "habitus," as elaborated by late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. This term refers, in essence, to one's disposition, values, and beliefs, which act as forces that shape one's behavior. It is the totality of one's experience in the world, and one's access to material and cultural resources, that determines one's habitus, and so, cultural capital plays a significant role in shaping it.

The Costs of Race and Class Privilege

These studies reveal that anti-vaxxers have very particular forms of cultural capital, as they are mostly highly educated, with mid- to upper-level incomes. It is quite possible that for anti-vaxxers, a confluence of educational, economic, and racial privilege produces the belief that one knows better than the scientific and medical communities at large, and a blindness to the negative implications that one's actions may have on others.

Unfortunately, the costs to society and to those without economic security are potentially quite great.

Per the studies cited above, those opting out of vaccines for their children put at risk those who are unvaccinated due to limited access to material resources and health care--a population composed primarily of children living in poverty, many of whom are racial minorities. This means that wealthy, white, highly educated anti-vaccination parents are mostly putting at risk the health of poor, unvaccinated children. Viewed this way, the anti-vaxxer issue looks a lot like arrogant privilege running rogue over the structurally oppressed.

In the wake of the 2015 California measles outbreak, the American Academy of Pediatrics released this statement urging vaccination, and reminds parents of the very serious and potentially fatal outcomes of contracting preventable diseases like measles.

Readers interested in learning more about the social and cultural trends behind anti-vaccination should look to The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Everything You Need to Know About Anti-Vaxxers." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-anti-vaxxers-3026197. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2017, March 2). Everything You Need to Know About Anti-Vaxxers. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-anti-vaxxers-3026197 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Everything You Need to Know About Anti-Vaxxers." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-anti-vaxxers-3026197 (accessed December 16, 2017).