Poll finds public support for school-based vaccination, but limited trust in vaccine safety and public health agencies

A measles vaccine

For immediate release: Thursday, September 12, 2019

Boston, MA – A new poll from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and SSRS finds that Americans broadly support (84%) requirements for parents to have children vaccinated against preventable diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella in order to attend school.

But the poll also shows limited trust in vaccines and public health agencies. Just about half of adults (54%) think childhood vaccines are “very safe” for most children and only a third (37%) say they trust public health agencies “a great deal” for information about childhood vaccine safety.

“The public’s limited trust in both childhood vaccines and public health agencies makes room for anti-vaccine sentiment in exemption policy debates,” says Gillian K. SteelFisher, senior research scientist in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard Chan School and assistant director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program. “Public health agencies need to partner with trusted health professionals, including doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, in order to protect public policy support for vaccines and ultimately children.”

Younger people (age 18-34) are less likely than the oldest generation (age 65+) to believe childhood vaccines are “very safe” (48% vs. 61%) or trust public health agencies for information about childhood vaccine safety (31% vs. 44%).

Among parents of children under 18, about one in seven (15%) say they have delayed or not given their child vaccines because of concerns about safety. Parents of children under 18 do not differ from those without children with respect to policy support, trust in vaccines, or trust in public health agencies for vaccine safety information.

Topline results for each question are below.

(Q1-3 asked of total from 8/6/19 through 8/11/19, and asked of parents from 8/13/19 through 9/1/19; Total n=1,550; Parents n=704; Non-parents n=846)

Q1. The next question is about vaccination requirements for children to attend school. Children who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons are never required to get vaccinated in order to attend school. But for all other children to attend school, do you think parents should be required to have them vaccinated against preventable diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella, or do you think that parents should be able to send their children to school without having them vaccinated?

Q2. How safe you do think childhood vaccines are for most children? Do you think they are…?

Q3. How much do you trust public health agencies to provide accurate information about the safety of vaccines for children?  Do you trust them…?

(Q4 Asked of parents from 7/30/19 through 9/1/19; n=870)

Q4. Have you ever delayed vaccines or not given some vaccines to your child/any of your children because of concerns about the safety of vaccines?

Polling Team

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Gillian K. SteelFisher, senior research scientist and associate director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program; Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis and executive director of HORP; Hannah Caporello, program manager at HORP

SSRS: Eran Ben-Porath, execuive vice president of public opinion research

Methodology Summary

This poll was conducted by SSRS of Glen Mills (PA) July 30–September, 2019, among a nationally representative random digit dial telephone sample of adults ages 18 and older, living in the United States (note: persons without a telephone could not be included in the random selection process). Due to the subject matter, this study was designed to reach a relatively large sample of parents (or legal guardians) of children under the age of 18 living in their household. Questions 1 through 3 were asked of 1,550 adults, including 704 parents and 846 non-parents. Question 4 was asked of 870 parents.

Respondents were reached through SSRS’s weekly omnibus poll. The SSRS Omnibus poll is a dual frame (cell phone and landline) random digit dial (RDD) telephone poll of U.S. adults. Every week, approximately 1,000 interviews are completed on the SSRS Omnibus poll, with interviewing conducted in English and Spanish. For these specific questions, data were collected over a five-week span: Q1-Q3 were asked of all adults during one week, and of parents only in another three weeks. Q4 was asked of parents during all five weeks. Of the 1,716 interviews completed for this study, 77 were completed in Spanish. A total of 1,279 interviews were completed with respondents reached by cell phone (including 852 who could be reached only by cell phone), and 437 with respondents reached by landline.

The parent and non-parent samples were weighted separately to match estimates for the national population using data from the Census Bureau’s March 2018 Current Population Survey (CPS) on age (by gender), educational attainment, race, Hispanic origin, marital status, and Census region, along with data from the 2010 Census on population density. The sample was also weighted to match current patterns of telephone use using data from the July-December 2018 National Health Interview Survey. The weights take into account the fact that respondents with both a landline and cell phone have a higher probability of selection in the combined sample. The (Q1-Q3) parent and non-parent samples were combined by weighting the parent sample down to its actual population proportion. All reported statistical tests of significance account for the effect of weighting. The margin of sampling error, including the design effect, is +/-3% the full sample (Q1 through Q3), +/-4% for parents, and +/-4%  for non-parents. For Q4, the margin of sampling error for all respondents (parents) is +/-4%. For results based on other subgroups, the margin of sampling error may be higher. Note that sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in the poll.

Possible sources of non-sampling error include non-response bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Non-response in telephone surveys produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases and for variations in probability of selection within and across households, sample data are weighted by cell phone/landline use and demographics (sex, age, education, and Census region) to reflect the true population. Other techniques, including random-digit dialing, replicate subsamples, and systematic respondent selection within households, are used to ensure that the sample is representative.

photo: iStock/Samara Heisz

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Chris Sweeney


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people’s lives—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at Harvard Chan teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America’s oldest professional training program in public health.

SSRS, of Glen Mills, PA, is a nonpartisan public opinion research firm, specializing in survey-design, data-collection, analysis and reporting. In the industry, SSRS is renowned for its sophisticated sample designs and its experience with all facets of data collection, including those involving multimodal formats. SSRS’s research focus is typically policy-centered, relying on scientific standards for sampling and data management. Policy-makers, academic researchers, think tanks, and news organizations have been relying on SSRS for data their collection  and analysis for over 30 years. SSRS is a Charter Member of the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) Transparency Initiative (www.aapor.org).  The Transparency Initiative’s goal is to encourage broader and more effective disclosure of research methods through proactively and routinely disclosing the critical research methods associated with publicly-released studies.  SSRS is also a member of the Insight Association (formerly CASRO) and subscribes to the CASRO Code of Standards for Survey Research.