Why Are COVID-19 Vaccination Rates Among Children So Low? Parents’ Worry About Long-Term Risks, Responsibility

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The USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research finds that 45% of parents of children and adolescents are concerned about potential long-term risks from the COVID-19 vaccine, and 18% fear they’ll be viewed as responsible if their child becomes sick after the vaccination.

A new study from USC Dornsife’s Center for Economic and Social Research explains why many children go without COVID-19 vaccination. (Composite: Sarvani Kolachana. Image source: iStock.)

Key points:

  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a large COVID-19 vaccination rate disparity between children and adults.
  • Only 39% of children 5 to 11 and 68% of those 12 to 17 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to 92% of adults.
  • Nearly half of the parents believe that the potential long-term risks of vaccinating their child outweigh the risks of not vaccinating, according to USC Dornsife research.
  • One in five say they’d feel a greater sense of responsibility if their child became sick after being vaccinated than if they remained unvaccinated.
  • Addressing these concerns could result in 3 million more children and adolescents being vaccinated, say researchers.

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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