This post reviews Elizabeth L. Thorpe, et al., “Homeschooling Parents’ Practices and Beliefs about Childhood Immunizations” in Vaccine, 30, no. 6 (February 2012): 1149-1153.
This paper, written by a group of physicians and medical researchers, noting the rise both in occurrences of “vaccine preventable disease” (VPD) and the rise in homeschooling, tries to probe the attitudes of homeschoolers toward vaccination.
It’s a great question to ask, and the authors note (as did I in a previous post) that there has been no systematic study of it. All we have to go on so far are anecdotes that crop up on occasion about outbreaks of diseases among unvaccinated homeschoolers and those in their orbit. So the authors tried to get data on attitudes of homeschooling parents toward vaccinations.
To do this, they contacted the eight homeschooling organizations they found on the internet in the Pittsburgh area. Of the eight, five agreed to allow their members to participate in a survey. The researchers created an online survey and the five group leaders sent the link to their members. The five groups claimed a total membership of 707. Out of this membership, 124 parents actually took the time to complete the survey, a response rate of 18%. But only 111 of these responses were usable, so we’re really talking about 16%.
Demographics of this group was not surprising for a homeschooling convenience sample drawn from web-based homeschooling groups. The respondents were almost all women, most of them college educated. Mean income was $75,000 and average number of children was 3.2. No data on religion or race given. The top four motivators for homeschooling were the desire to spend more time with their kids (85%), concern about negative peer influences (65%), dissatisfaction with public school (57%), and desire for religious instruction (55%).
When it came to attitudes toward vaccines, the results were pretty interesting. While 64% of the sample agreed with the idea of vaccination in theory, only 33% agreed with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations for how many vaccines to take and when to take them. 43% believed that vaccines have dangerous side effects. 41% believed that some vaccines cause autism, and the same percentage believed they cause other learning disabilities. 55% don’t necessarily follow the recommendations of their health care provider.
Doing some statistical analysis of these results, the authors found no correlation between income, education level, or age of parent and attitude toward vaccination. Not surprisingly, beliefs about the safety of vaccination correlated very strongly with whether or not a parent had had her children vaccinated.
In their discussion the authors note that this homeschooling sample does not differ much from attitudes in the broader national community in some respects. Other researchers have found that about half of all Americans with young children worry about the safety of vaccines. But the homeschool sample was FAR more distrustful of the advice of doctors or professional organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics. A comparatively large group of the homeschoolers seem as well to take an a la carte approach–allowing their children to receive some, but not all vaccinations.
The paper concludes with an admission that this small convenience sample leaves a lot to be desired. They hope future studies will have a better design that will allow for comparisons between homeschooling parents and parents choosing other educational options. They also think future studies should do a better job of ferreting out exactly which vaccines homeschooling parents tend to reject.
My only concern with this study, aside from the obvious problems inherent in a convenience sample, is that the reliance on a voluntary, internet-based survey might bias the sample even further. Were the 16% of parents in these support groups who took the time to do the survey just typical homeschoolers, or would only a certain type of parent be likely to click through the link and fill out the survey? My speculation would be that homeschoolers who deeply distrusted medical professionals would be more likely to ignore such a request, and so the sample reported on here might be less opposed to vaccinations than a more representative group of homeschoolers actually is. Or could it go the other way…perhaps homeschoolers who are really worked up about the vaccination issue would be more likely to click through and give these researchers a piece of their minds? I don’t know, but this anonymous internet survey approach to data collection makes me hesitant to generalize from these findings.