Australian parents who take their children to a complementary medicine practitioner such as a naturopath or chiropractor are more likely to delay or reject vaccination, according to our research.
Vaccine coverage for five-year-old children is over 93% across Australia, according to recent figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. However, in certain areas, such as parts of northern New South Wales, uptake is reportedly as low as 73.2%. This increases the risk of disease outbreaks.
Initiatives that focus on increasing vaccination in these communities are critical. If properly trained, complementary health practitioners in areas of low vaccination uptake could provide a vital link to help educate concerned or sceptical parents about the need to vaccinate their children.
Practitioners, parents and vaccine uptake
We surveyed 429 parents with at least one child under the age of six from all states in Australia. We asked about their children’s visits to medical, allied and complementary medicine practitioners. We also asked whether their children’s immunisations were up to date and about their own attitudes to vaccination.
We found parents who are cautious about vaccination often seek complementary health services over conventional medical services. This supports earlier research that has found many vaccine-hesitant parents believe complementary medicine is safer and more personal than Western biomedicine.
Many parents who have concerns about immunisation are more likely to trust information about vaccination received from a complementary medicine practitioner than a conventional medical provider. Parents appear to trust complementary medicine practitioners as they have always used this system of health care. Consequently, they continue to do so for their children’s health.
For example, many parents describe being taken to see complementary medicine practitioners as children themselves. Parents may also be attracted to these practitioners after perceiving their general practitioner did not adequately answer their concerns about vaccination or take them seriously.
Anti-vax views common in ‘alternative communities’
While vaccine rejection is multi-factorial and complex, we found that many parents who are cautious about vaccination have cultural beliefs that are common in alternative lifestyle communities. The upper Blue Mountains of New South Wales is one such community with well-known low vaccine coverage.
We are conducting research in partnership with the Nepean Blue Mountains Primary Health Network to explore complementary medicine practitioner attitudes to vaccination in this area. The latest immunisation figures show that only 80% of two-year-olds are vaccinated in Lawson, Wentworth Falls, Katoomba, Leura and Medlow Bath.
Our qualitative research found that many complementary medicine practitioners said they personally support immunisation but rarely feel “free” to have a conversation with parents about its benefits.
While there are various reasons for this, lack of confidence due to lack of vaccination training was a common concern. Many of the complementary medicine practitioners we spoke to recommended parents talk to their general practitioner, or suggested parents do their own research.
These findings support research from other countries that has found no default position on immunisation among complementary medicine practitioners. Many do support vaccination.
Complementary medicine practitioners are part of the Australian healthcare system, with accredited degree programs available. Therefore, they cannot be ignored as a potential source of information about vaccination – particularly for parents who are sceptical about it.
What about No Jab No Pay?
The Australian government introduced the No Jab No Pay policy in 2015 with the aim of increasing childhood vaccination uptake. Our study found its impact was minimal.
More than three-quarters of parents whose youngest child was not vaccinated said No Jab No Pay had no influence or made them less likely to vaccinate their child. Early successes may be related to catch-up vaccinations in older children. The new measures may further alienate some parents and therefore erode public confidence.
While it’s still too early to entirely judge the success or failure of No Jab No Pay, our research indicates that alternative ways of providing information and support to parents may be most effective.
Complementary medicine practitioners may be part of the solution
Unfortunately, the topic of vaccination has become politicised and controversial in Australia. But discussion about alternative ways to communicate with vaccine-hesitant parents remains essential.
Many parents are taking their children to see complementary medicine practitioners for general health care. If proper training is provided, these practitioners could be part of the solution to an increasing vaccine uptake.
Ideally, this training could include a compulsory module on immunisation that covers history, benefits and risks of vaccination, the science behind the vaccine schedule and how to communicate with parents about immunisation. Ensuring complementary medicine practitioners are equipped with the skills to have evidence-based conversations with parents may be an effective way of overcoming vaccine concern and scepticism.
Complementary medicine practitioners offer an important potential means to convince concerned or sceptical parents of the benefits of vaccinating their children.