Dr. Roy Perlis, lead author of the new study, associate chief of research at the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, and director of the hospital’s Center for Quantitative Health, stresses, however, that it is very difficult to disentangle cause and effect when looking at the relationship between depressive symptoms and receptiveness to misinformation about vaccines. To be able to assess this more accurately, he says they would need experimental data.
“It’s possible that having depression doesn’t make you more inclined to believe fake news; rather, perhaps believing fake news makes you depressed — although we didn’t test that here. We do think it is concerning that people with severe depression or anxiety seem particularly vulnerable to believing misinformation about vaccine safety, but this needs further study before drawing any firm conclusions,” Perlis says.
He adds: “The bottom line I take away from this study is that when it comes to information about vaccines, there are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there. As a physician, I’ve been witness to examples of patients being utterly taken in by claims that vaccines or other forms of treatment will harm them or their children. It’s our duty to counter this misinformation with good information and an open mind — which can be tough when we feel vulnerable ourselves.”
People who are diagnosed with a condition such as depression can sometimes feel stigmatized and judged by their peers. This stigma may make some people less likely to take certain types of medication that those around them do, or even to ask for help from the professionals they see regarding their medications. In some cases, this can result where a person doesn’t properly take their medicine as prescribed. When it comes to vaccine hesitancy – which is defined as “when individuals delay or refuse immunizations despite availability” – this could potentially lead not only to an increased risk of disease but also unwanted side effects from vaccines themselves. People with conditions such as depression may be at greater risk for vaccine hesitancy than others and therefore more at risk for complications and severe infections that come with them.
The lens of depression may contribute to childhood vaccination hesitancy, according to new research published in JAMA Pediatrics. The study found that as children become more depressed, they are less likely to anticipate the benefits of vaccinations and more likely to see vaccines as a threat.
“Over time, these negative cognition-emotion associations could influence how willing parents are to vaccinate their child,” explains lead author Christina A. Porucznik of Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. “One of the most important findings is this idea of ‘cognitive congruency’ – having negative affect for vaccines really predicts lower intent to vaccinate.”
Porucznik had previously led research with mothers who had considered not vaccinating their children against the flu. She and her team sought to turn their focus to fathers, particularly taking into account how other factors might influence attitudes about childhood vaccinations. “People have different health beliefs based on social influences, previous experiences, cultural backgrounds,” says Porucznik.
Through an online survey of adults who had at least one biological child aged six years or older, the team examined data from 576 U.S. fathers between March 2015 and June 2016. The participants answered questions that touched upon vaccination benefits, safety concerns, likelihood of getting sick without shots, vaccine side effects and beliefs about how the vaccines would impact their child’s immune system. Additionally, each participant underwent a depression assessment via widely-used scales for depressive symptoms in parents – the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression scale.
The team found that participants who scored higher on the depression assessment were less likely to see vaccines as a benefit and more likely to anticipate their child getting sick without vaccination. However, no link was observed between symptoms of depression and wrong information about vaccine side effects.