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Anti-vaxxer misinformation infecting youngest adults, poll suggests

Doctor needle
(via Thinkstock)

In 2018, well before the world became preoccupied with the spread of the novel coronavirus, Research Co. explored the views of Canadians on vaccinations for children and adults.

This year, we chose to revisit this issue and offer a look at the perceptions of Canadians and Americans. Whether we like it or not, Canadians are exposed to coverage of this particular debate through the tint of U.S.-based celebrity and non-celebrity “anti-vaxxers,” who have found a home on television networks and social media to deliver their pseudo-scientific musings.

When Canadians are asked about vaccinations and childhood diseases (such as polio or measles), more than four in five (81%) believe that these should “definitely” or “probably” mandatory in their province. This still leaves slightly more than one in 10 Canadians (12%) who think this is a decision that should be in the hands of parents.

The highest proportion of Canadians who are in favour of compulsory inoculation for children is observed in Atlantic Canada (90%) and British Columbia (86%) while the lowest is in Quebec, at 75%.

The Canadian results appear to introduce a reassuring trend, with a three-point increase since 2018 in the number of respondents who think vaccinations for childhood diseases should be mandatory, and a six-point decrease in the proportion of those who would let parents take the lead.

The results in the United States were not as comforting. While two-thirds of Americans (68%) believe childhood immunizations should be compulsory in their state, more than a quarter (27%) would leave the decision to the parents themselves.

On a regional basis, Americans who reside in the Midwest and Northeast are more likely to endorse mandatory vaccinations for children (75% and 71% respectively), while the proportion is lower in the West (66%) and the South (64%).

In a country that has recently seen Republicans and Democrats offer differing points of view on most issues, one would assume that the divide on immunization would be political as well. This is not the case.

Practically the same proportions of Democrats (74%) and Republicans (72%) agree with mandatory vaccinations for children. The number drops to 61% among independents, who represent more than a third of the U.S. electorate.

The views of Canadians and Americans are practically the same when they are asked to ponder whether vaccinations for seasonal diseases such as the flu should be mandatory in their province or state.

A slim majority of respondents in both countries (51%) believe the decision to vaccinate against seasonal diseases is the responsibility of the individual. Very similar proportions of Canadians (44%) and Americans (43%) would prefer to make these inoculations mandatory.

There is no pronounced age gap across the two North American countries on this question, although adults aged 18 to 34 are more likely to believe in mandatory vaccinations for adults (50% in Canada and 52% in the United States). It is also noteworthy that the proportion of Canadians who would endorse mandatory vaccinations against seasonal diseases increased by six points since 2018.

A final question gauged whether Canadians and Americans continue to believe in the widely debunked notion that the childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella is linked to autism.

In Canada, 26% of respondents believe this link “definitely” or “probably” exists. This represents a three-point increase since 2018, which is driven primarily by Canadians aged 18 to 34 (36%).

In the United States, the proportion of residents who associate childhood vaccines with autism is higher, at 30%. But, as is the case in Canada, ill-informed members of the youngest adult age group are the ones who boost the numbers of this falsehood (43%).

The current state of attitudes towards vaccinations in North America brings mixed feelings. On the one hand, more Canadians side with the notion of mandatory immunization for children than in 2018. On the other, people aged 18 to 34 on both sides of the 49th parallel are more likely to link autism and these vaccinations than their older counterparts.

This is a particularly troublesome finding, as many Canadians and Americans aged 18 to 34 will eventually ponder whether or not to inoculate their own offspring – or maybe have made their choice already. If misinformation plays a role in these decisions, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted February 7–9, 2020, among 1,000 Canadian adults, and an online study conducted February 6–8, 2020, among 1,000 U.S. adults. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian and U.S. census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for each study, 19 times out of 20.




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