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Vaccine-Adverse People Commonly Faced Childhood Adversity

A new study found people who staunchly oppose COVID-19 vaccines were more likely to have experienced adverse childhoods, making them distrustful from a young age.

The COVID-19 pandemic reignited the so-called “anti-vax” movement, with some people very outspokenly and even violently opposing COVID-19 vaccinations. One study, published in PNAS Nexus, sought to understand this deep-seated anti-vaccine sentiment.

Terrie Moffitt, PhD, a senior author of the study and the Nannerl O. Keohane University Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, said her teajm was moved to research this topic in response to people who said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine “over their dead body.” “These beliefs seem to be very passionate and deeply held, and close to the bone,” Moffitt explained, “So we wanted to know where they came from.”

The investigators hoped to uncover “where people are coming from” to inform effective pro-vaccination messaging strategies. They delved into the personal experiences, values, motives, lifestyles, preferences, and information-processing capabilities of vaccine-hesitant and vaccine-resistant persons.

The database utilized for this research, the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, has been tracking nearly 1000 residents of Dunedin, New Zealand since they were born in 1972-73. Since childhood, researchers have measured social, psychological, and health factors of the study participants. The cohort was 93% white and is a fairly accurate representation of the country’s demographics.

The investigators surveyed willing participants from April-June 2021 to determine whether they: (a) definitely or probably intended to be vaccinated (N=622 [75%], Vaccine-Willing); (b) did not know enough to decide (N=101 [12%], Vaccine-Hesitant/Undecided); or (c) definitely or probably did not intend to be vaccinated (N=109 [13%], Vaccine-Resistant).

The survey responses were matched with background information of the participants’ upbringing and experiences. The investigators found that about 40 years prior to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the 21% of vaccine-hesitant and 44% of vaccine-resistant respondents had adverse childhood experiences, such as neglect, deprivation, threats, or abuse.

The vaccine-resistant and vaccine-hesitant groups expressed very little trust in institutions. However, in the vaccine-resistant group, this mistrust extended beyond institutions and influencers, to coworkers, friends, and family.

“That suggests to us that they learned from a tender age ‘don't trust the grownups.’ If anyone comes on to you with authority…they don’t care about you, they’ll take advantage,” Moffitt explained. “That's what they learned in childhood, from their experiences growing up at home. And that kind of learning at that age leaves you with a sort of a legacy of mistrust. It's so deep-seated that it automatically brings up extreme emotions.”

Additionally, the vaccine-resistant and especially vaccine-hesitant persons performed less well on IQ tests as children, and had lower scores of verbal comprehension and processing speed as adults. Vaccine-hesitant and vaccine-resistant respondents also had less practical everyday health knowledge when they were surveyed a few years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, none of these results changed when the investigators adjusted for socioeconomic status.

“The best investments we could make now would be in building children’s trust and building stable environments, and ensuring that if the individual caregiver fails them, society will take care of them,” said study co-author Stacy Wood, PhD, the Langdon Distinguished University Professor of Marketing at North Carolina State University.

The study authors noted that neither pro-vaccine nor anti-vaccine rhetoric exists in a vacuum; all of this messaging competes against personal experiences and longstanding opinions. The investigators concluded that preparing for the next pandemic must begin with protecting and informing today’s children.