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More Americans say the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risk. Getty Images
  • With vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States on the rise, more people say they believe the benefits of measles vaccine outweigh the risks.
  • Last year had the most measles cases since 1992, and experts say pockets of unvaccinated groups helped lead to the spread of the disease.
  • A new study finds that Americans are actually increasingly likely to say that the MMR shot is safe and effective.

The return of vaccine-preventable illnesses like last year’s measles outbreak has put a spotlight on the rise of anti-vaccine advocates who go against medical advice and do not fully vaccinate their children.

While this group may make headlines, research finds they are still firmly in the minority.

A new report from the Pew Research Center is showing that the public attitude toward one controversial vaccine in particular, the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, is increasingly positive.

Childhood vaccines have been vitally important throughout history in eradicating certain fatal illnesses like polio, tetanus, diphtheria, measles, mumps, and rubella. If you’ve never heard of a few of these, it’s because vaccines are effective.

But 2019 was the highest years for measles’ outbreaks in decades, as well as a year with one of the lowest vaccination rates. The majority of measles cases were among people who were not vaccinated.

About 88 percent of U.S. adults say the benefits of the MMR vaccine outweigh the risks. The portion who consider its preventative health benefits to be “very high” has grown by 11 percent between 2016 and 2019.

Among the demographics researched, black and Hispanic Americans hold less-positive views about the MMR vaccine than white Americans. The research shows 92 percent of white adults say the benefits outweigh the risks, while 74 percent and 78 percent of black and Hispanic adults say the same, respectively.

Forty-six percent of black and 45 percent of Hispanic adults say the risk of side effects is a medium, while 23 percent of white Americans say the same.

There are also differences by generation, though not as extreme. Baby Boomer and older adults rank the benefits of the MMR vaccine higher than the risks. Those with higher levels of education and higher incomes were also more likely to consider the MMR vaccine. About 93 percent of Americans with a postgraduate degree rank the health benefits of the MMR vaccine as very high or high.

“When you break it down into the details what was interesting to me is that there are still significant racial and socio-economic disparities in these views, which I feel need to be addressed,” says Dr. Valerie Cluzet, infectious disease specialist and internal medicine physician at Nuvance Health in New York. “It gives a good view on where to focus education efforts on vaccine education and disease prevention.”

As to whether or not the research will change the dialog, it remains to be seen. “I don’t think [the debate] will completely ever go away,” says Cluzet. “But the more we educate, as long as it stays a discussion in education, we can improve on it.”

Reasons for why parents refuse to vaccinate their kids vary among parents, but can fall into four overarching categories: religion, personal or philosophical beliefs, safety concerns, and a desire for more information from healthcare providers.

“Vaccine hesitancy” is the term given to those who fall into any of these camps. There is no federal law regarding vaccine administration, but each state has its own laws regarding which vaccinations are required for children to enter school. When it comes to the MMR vaccine, all children in all states entering school, college, child care, etc. must be up to date on their vaccinations.

Nothing is perfect, and there are side effects to everything, but according to the CDC, the side effects for the MMR vaccine are almost always mild and include:

  • sore arm from the shot
  • fever
  • mild rash
  • temporary pain

In a few rare cases there have been febrile seizures, but the risk is low and is not associated with any long-term effects.

The theory that the MMR vaccine can lead to autism has no scientific data to back it up. A 1998 report published data to the contrary, but was retracted by the journal that published it, and the researcher behind the study lost their medical license. Autism is a brain development condition with a genetic component and usually shows up before the age of 1.

“To be clear, significant side effects, like a low platelet count, occur on a rare basis,” says Dr. Michael Grosso, chief medical officer and chair of pediatrics at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital. “But the side effects these respondents are thinking about, like autism or other developmental problems aren’t ‘rare.’ They are nonexistent. And so, there is still a lot of educating we need to do to separate fact from fiction.”