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On the attack: demonising anti-vax parents not the answer

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new study has analysed the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) by parents who reject vaccines

The study drew on data from interviews conducted with 29 parents in Fremantle and Adelaide as part of two separate studies.   Dr Katie Attwell, Senior Lecturer from UWA’s School of Social Science, said the study was the first in Australia and one of the first internationally to look at the reasoning informing vaccine rejection and CAM use.

“There are studies that do show a correlation between vaccine rejection and CAM use but none so far that have specifically examined the reasons behind it. This study is one of the first of its kind and it’s produced some very interesting findings,” Dr Attwell said.

Dr Attwell said the study showed that parents had a range of attitudes, but also some distinct patterns, that led to their engagement with CAM.

“We found a symbiotic relationship. CAM use doesn’t cause vaccine refusal, or vice versa, but there is a definite link between the two,” she said.

“If you’re a CAM user, you may feel like you don’t need to vaccinate and your CAM provider may support this view. And if you’re a vaccine refuser, you may rely upon CAM as part of your toolbox to pursue a healthy life for your family and not see vaccinations as a necessity.”

Dr Attwell said the study found the vaccine refusers were a cohort of parents who really valued autonomy, choice and action.

“We didn’t just look at parents visiting CAM practitioners, but also their use of remedies at home, and their network of friends that may also support their home remedies. Doing things for themselves is important – it’s a DIY ethic and it seems to empower them in both their use of CAM and their decision to reject the medical consensus on vaccinating.”

Dr Attwell said a subset of the parents in the study, mostly those who accepted some vaccines, were sceptical of the use of some or all CAM.

“Others think their family is so healthy that they don’t need CAM or vaccines. And while many of our parents were sceptical of pharmaceutical companies, only a handful were concerned that CAM also operates for profit. So there were some really interesting nuances within our data, as well as an overall explanation for why vaccine refusal and CAM use travel together.”

Dr Attwell said the study could inform how vaccination policymakers and health professionals discuss vaccination with parents who value natural products and their own input into child health.

“Emphasising the immune-boosting capacities of vaccines through the natural responses they elicit in the body is one option,” Dr Attwell said.

“However, it’s even more important to consider that CAM means something to vaccine refusing parents, who feel like it works for them. Discussing how vaccinating supports their existing parenting practices is important if you want to engage with them.”

The study has been published in the Social Science and Medicine journal

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