Addressing vaccine hesitancy requires an ethically consistent health strategy

Laura Williamson, Hannah Glaab

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Background: Vaccine hesitancy is a growing threat to public health. The reasons are complex but linked inextricably to a lack of trust in vaccines, expertise and traditional sources of authority. Efforts to increase immunization uptake in children in many countries that have seen a fall in vaccination rates are two-fold: addressing hesitancy by improving healthcare professional-parent exchange and information provision in the clinic; and, secondly, public health strategies that can override parental concerns and values with coercive measures such as mandatory and presumptive vaccination. Main text: It is argued that such conflicting, parallel approaches seriously risk undermining trust that is crucial for sustaining herd immunity. Although public health strategies can be ethically justified in limiting freedoms, a parent-centered approach seldom acknowledges how it is impacted by contemporaneous coercive measures. In addition, the clinical encounter is not well suited to helping parents consider the public dimensions of vaccination, despite these being important for trust formation and informed decision-making. Efforts to address vaccine hesitancy require more consistent engagement of parental and citizen views. Along with evidence-based information, debates need to be informed by ethical support that equips parents and professionals to respond to the private and public dimensions of vaccination in a more even-handed, transparent manner. Conclusion: Efforts to address vaccine hesitancy need to avoid simple reliance on either parental values or coercive public policies. To do this effectively requires increasing citizen engagement on vaccination to help inform a parent-centered approach and legitimize public policy measures. In addition, cultivating a more ethically consistent strategy means moving beyond the current silos of health ethics - clinical and public health ethics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number84
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 24 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Deliberation
  • Engagement
  • Ethics
  • Hesitancy
  • Public health
  • Public policy
  • Vaccination

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Issues, ethics and legal aspects
  • Health(social science)
  • Health Policy


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