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Researchers say 26 percent of parents expressed reluctance to have their children get flu shots, while only 6 percent were hesitant about the vaccinations given to children during their first few years of life. Getty Images
  • A new study reports that 1 in 4 parents are hesitant about getting their children vaccinated against seasonal influenza.
  • Only 6 percent of parents are hesitant about other routine childhood vaccinations.
  • Getting a flu shot isn’t guaranteed to prevent a person from getting the illness, but it may lessen the severity along with protecting other at-risk family members, such as grandparents.
  • It remains to be seen whether parents are hesitant about an eventual COVID-19 vaccine.

New research shows that 1 in 4 parents are hesitant about getting the influenza vaccine for their children.

In the study, published today in the journal Pediatrics, researchers analyzed more than 2,000 survey responses from parents of children between the ages of 6 months and 18 years.

While nearly 26 percent of parents said they were reluctant about getting flu shots for their kids, only 6 percent said they were hesitant about other routine childhood vaccinations.

“We were very surprised by the level of hesitancy for influenza vaccine,” said Dr. Allison Kempe, MPH, MSPH, a professor of pediatrics-general pediatrics at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado, and the study’s lead author.

“The perceptions about the effectiveness of childhood vaccines and influenza vaccines were completely different,” Kempe told Healthline. “Seventy percent strongly agreed that routine childhood vaccines are effective, while only about a quarter of parents strongly agreed that influenza vaccines are effective, so those results were pretty surprising to us.”

The findings shine new light on how parents feel about childhood vaccinations.

The study didn’t directly relate to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but it raises intriguing questions about how an eventual COVID-19 vaccine could be received.

Researchers noted that certain factors — including having more children in the household and being unmarried — were associated with a higher level of hesitation about vaccines.

On an individual level, there are many reasons parents might be hesitant about getting their kids vaccinated, according to Dr. Jean Siri Moorjani, a pediatrician at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, Florida.

“They might think, ‘Well, I’ve gotten the flu shot before and I got sick,’” Moorjani told Healthline. “Maybe they’ve seen posts on social media that say the vaccine is a bad idea. I always try to figure out where families are at and if I can provide them with information and reassurance. I try to dispel those myths because I really want patients and their families to make the best decision with the correct information.”

It’s worth noting that the influenza vaccine is an inexact science. Different strains circulate with every flu season. Because the annual flu shot is created in advance of flu season, it can vary in terms of how effective it is in a given year.

“There have been several seasons where there’s been a lot of publicity about the fact that there’s a mismatch between the vaccine and the circulating strain of influenza that I think leads parents to think that the flu vaccine isn’t effective,” said Kempe. “Some of those stories, I think, have hit the news and made parents really concerned about whether it works.”

While the annual flu vaccine doesn’t always hit the mark, experts say there are still plenty of reasons for parents and their kids to get vaccinated.

“Both providers and parents really need to remember that, even when the vaccine is not ideally matched with the circulating strain, it will definitely decrease severity of illness and has been shown to decrease hospitalizations and bad outcomes,” Kempe said. “It’s important for children to get the vaccine, both for their own health, but probably most importantly for the fact that they’re a conduit to really high-risk groups like the elderly.”

Experts say misinformation from the anti-vaccination movement has made it important for medical professionals to speak out.

“I think that we as a society, along with major professional organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, could honestly do a better job of being more effective in terms of countering misinformation,” said Kempe.

From a public health perspective, it may be easier to change people’s behavior than their attitude, she says.

“There’s certainly a group that are more hesitant, and for those parents, it can be hard to change their mind,” Kempe said. “The strongest way to combat that is for a trusted provider, one who’s known the parent for a while, to say they strongly recommend the vaccine and also to answer any questions parents have.”

While there isn’t a COVID-19 vaccine available yet, it’s seen by many as the vaccine that will bring a semblance of normalcy back to society.

To counter this, anti-vaccination groups have already expressed skepticism of this potential vaccine.

Kempe says she’s heard hypotheses on both sides of the equation when it comes to philosophical resistance to an eventual COVID-19 vaccine.

“Some people are assuming that resistance for all vaccines is really going to go down because everyone’s so anxious to get a vaccine,” she said. “And then, on the other side, there’s plenty of indication that anti-vaccine groups are pushing even harder right now. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens. I’m very concerned that the assumption that somehow COVID is going to decrease hesitancy may not be borne out.”

Moorjani says she sees some level of irony in the fact that there’s such a high level of anticipation for a COVID-19 vaccine despite the fact that there’s so much hesitancy toward other vaccines that are proven to be effective.

“People are waiting for a safe vaccine that is effective to help bring our lives back to normalcy,” she said. “Yet, when it comes to the flu, we do have a vaccine that is safe, that protects you, and that’s ready to go. It’s surprising that people are hesitant about the vaccines we already have when we’re literally waiting for a vaccine to help us all through the pandemic.”