Vaccination research looks at where, how parents get their information

Julie Cooper | October 29, 2018


Dr. Emily K. Brunson, an associate professor in the Texas State University Department of Anthropology, is a medical anthropologist. Among her research are timely works she has authored or co-authored on such topics as the impact of social networks on parents’ vaccination decisions, how healthcare providers can have pro-vaccination conversations with parents, and why having an unvaccinated child is not always the result of parental choice.

Brunson says her research asks the question: “Why do parents in the U.S. end up with the vaccination ideas that they do?”. For this she has found three types of decision makers:

  • Acceptors. “People who go with the flow,” Brunson explains that vaccinating children is generally the social norm in the United States. “These are the parents who ask, ‘why would I not vaccinate?’”     
  • Reliers. “They depend on other people to tell them what to do.”  This includes family members and friends with children. 
  • Searchers. “These are the parents who are actively going out, reading books and researching articles to make their decisions about vaccination,” Brunson explains. The searchers tend to be better educated, older parents who are very involved in the process. “I  talked to one couple who had binders (of information),” she says. “When they got to the point of selecting a pediatrician for their son, they looked for a healthcare provider who would support the decision they had already made with their research.”
Dr. Emily K. Brunson

A 2013 quantitative study of Brunson’s that was published in Pediatrics showed that most of the parents in the study population were “reliers.’’  Healthcare providers were not No. 1, as parents’ vaccination decisions were not simply the result of what their provider recommended. Instead, mothers were looking at what their overall network – their family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and their healthcare providers – suggested. Social network “friends” were only included if they had personal relationships with the parent. 

And while everyone had different sized networks, “if more than 25 percent of the network was recommending anything but complete, on-time vaccination, parents would also opt for something other than complete, on-time vaccination. The effect was huge,” Brunson says.  

Complicating matters further, Brunson notes that “Most of the time when you have children who are not vaccinated in the U.S. there is an access issue, so it’s not even just about parental choice.” This means that there is no simple answer as to “how can we fix non-complete or under vaccination?” 

In 2019 Brunson will begin a new research project where she will follow new, first-time mothers and look at the decisions that impact their children’s lives, including decisions about vaccination, breastfeeding, and co-sleeping. She will explore such things as how parents’ decision making unfolds, who are they talking to, and what might cause them to change their minds. 

“Anthropology tends to look at things holistically. What roles do socioeconomic status, age, race, and geographic location play? How do state and national policies and how they are implemented locally impact what parents do? Understanding how all of these factors come together to create an outcome gives a clearer picture of what’s going on, and once you have that it gives you the ability to develop a truly effective solution,” Brunson says. 

For more information, contact University Communications:

Jayme Blaschke, 512-245-2555

Sandy Pantlik, 512-245-2922