Complementary medicine use doesn’t cause vaccine refusal – but it is correlated, researchers have found
A small new study led by a researcher from The University of Western Australia has analysed the use of complementary and alternative medicine by parents who reject some or all vaccines for their children.
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, says the study is the first in Australia and one of the first internationally to look at the reasoning behind vaccine rejection and CM (or 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,” Dr Attwell says.
Dr Attwell says the study shows that parents have a range of attitudes, but also some distinct patterns, that lead to their engagement with CMs.
“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 says.
“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 says the study found the vaccine refusers value 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 says a subset of the parents in the study, mostly those who accepted some vaccines, are sceptical of the use of some or all CMs.
“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 says 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 says.
“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 & Medicine journal here.