Why are COVID-19 vaccination rates among children so low?

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Why are COVID-19 vaccination rates among children so low? Parents’ worry about long-term risks, responsibility

Parents worry about potential long-term risks from the vaccine, and some fear they’ll be viewed as responsible if their child becomes sick after the vaccination, USC research finds.

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Despite efforts by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and pediatric clinicians to increase the COVID-19 vaccination rate among children, many remain unvaccinated due to parental concerns about the vaccine’s long-term effects and anticipated responsibility. Those are findings from a new study published in Pediatrics and conducted by the Center for Economic and Social Research(CESR) at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

The researchers sought to determine the causes of low child vaccination rates. Currently, only 39% of children 5 to 11 and 68% of those 12 to 17 have received vaccinations, compared to 92% of adults.

During the Omicron variant’s spike between February and March 2022, when pediatric COVID-19 cases peaked, the USC Dornsife survey of parents in the nationally representative Understanding America Study revealed that 45% of parents believed the vaccine’s long-term risks to their child outweighed the risks of not being vaccinated.

Ying Liu, research scientist at CESR and the study lead, explained that “parents’ hesitancy may be partly driven by apprehension about the vaccine, stemming from its rapid development and the use of newer techniques.”

Additionally, 18% of parents said they’d feel a heightened sense of responsibility if their child became sick following vaccination.

“People often exhibit a more cautious approach when making medical decisions for others, including their own children, than for themselves,” Liu said. “Some tend to do nothing rather than vaccinate their child, even though such inaction could result in negative consequences.”

Said Arie Kapteyn, director of CESR and professor (research) of economics at USC Dornsife: “This research underscores the pressing need to address parental perceptions of the COVID-19 vaccine. By doing so, we believe the vaccination rate among 5- to 17-year-olds could be increased to over 50%.”

The report suggests the following ways to boost child vaccination rates:

Assure parents that side effects from the vaccine are rare and mild, whereas the health complications from the COVID-19 infection are far more common and severe.

Highlight that there is no evidence or plausible way in which the vaccine could alter a child’s genetic makeup.

Emphasize the potential and avoidable negative outcomes from lack of action when delaying or foregoing the vaccination.

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