Photo: Getty Images, additional design by Archi Banal
Photo: Getty Images, additional design by Archi Banal

ScienceApril 8, 2022

Vaccine resistance linked to ‘deep-seated’ childhood experiences, Dunedin Study finds

Photo: Getty Images, additional design by Archi Banal
Photo: Getty Images, additional design by Archi Banal

Data drawing on participants in the five-decade research project suggest Covid vaccine resistance emerges from a mistrust seeded in the earliest years of life, backing calls for a more devolved response that entrusts communities.

Vaccine resistance and hesitancy often stems from a mistrust engendered in upbringings blighted by abuse, neglect and deprivation. That’s the finding from new research undertaken as part of the Dunedin Study.

The results come out of a special survey of participants in the pioneering University of Otago longitudinal study. The group was asked about their vaccination intentions in June 2021, shortly before the general rollout began, and individuals’ responses were compared to information collected from them in the 70s and 80s in relation to their childhood and personality.

The findings – adjusted for socioeconomic factors – suggested that among the 13% who were resistant to vaccination there was a markedly higher experience of “adverse childhood experiences that foster mistrust, longstanding mental-health problems that foster misinterpretation of messaging, and early-emerging personality traits including tendencies toward extreme negative emotions, shutting down mentally under stress, nonconformism, and fatalism about health.”

“What they appear to learn during childhood is if anyone comes to you with authority, they’re just trying to get something, and they don’t care about you, they’ll take advantage,” said Professor Terrie Moffitt, associate director of the Dunedin Study and lead author of the paper published in PNAS Nexus. 

“That kind of learning at that age leaves you with a sort of a legacy of mistrust,” said Moffitt, who is based at Duke University in North Carolina. “It’s so deep-seated that it automatically brings up extreme emotions.”  

From ‘Deep-Seated Psychological Histories of COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitance and Resistance’, PNAS Nexus

Professor Richie Poulton, a co-author of the research and director of the Dunedin Study, told The Spinoff there was a range of experiences classified as adverse. “At the extreme end they may have been sexually abused, been exposed to extreme violence, belted around. Others have been neglected, grown up in chaotic environments, left on their own, isolated in school.”

It meant such children “started from way behind, with all the crappy stuff to deal with. That can set you up, when you’ve had that early life experience about how life works. You can be highly alert to potential threat and danger, distrustful of parental figures, for example, if they’re part of the problem, and other figures of authority.”

For many people brought up in such circumstances, it became “a vicious cycle”, he said. “You get tuned in real quick to think: OK, I’m on my own here. And when the proverbial hits the fan I’ve got to look after myself, I’m not going to trust any of these people. And that evolves and deepens … You find by the time they’re young adults they have a personality in which they’re highly stress reactive, and may see danger where it doesn’t exist.” That became an “ingrained” mistrust of authority and institutions that came to the surface in the face of a high-stress situation like a pandemic. 

Richie Poulton, director of the Dunedin Study, in the TVNZ series Why Am I?

A critical lesson of all that, said Poulton, was that people were much likelier to listen to people in their own communities than messages from on high. “You can have a different conversation, that might go somewhere, if it’s with someone from my community, my town – I know you’re not out to get me so I might give it a go.” The research showed it was counterproductive to “belittle” those who were reluctant to be vaccinated, he said. Such an approach was only likely to “harden their resolve” – a direct and local engagement was “much more useful than shouting vitriol across the barriers”.

He hoped the study might help provide “an objective, but humane perspective to something that has become highly politicised – not just here but around the world, for different reasons. We want to say, with some compassion, this is what the data tell us, so look at what it says, don’t going firing off with ‘I know best’ … It’s about cooling down those interactions, looking for ways to create trust, in which you then share your message.” 

Aotearoa today has a very highly Covid-vaccinated population by global standards, with around 95% of eligible New Zealanders having had at least two doses. The lesson for the next time such a crisis is confronted is the need to “move more quickly to devolve to communities the responsibility for delivering vaccinations”, said Poulton. “That creates a comparatively higher trust environment. For human, understandable reasons, being told [via] 1pm message from Wellington just doesn’t cut it, because their levels of mistrust are so great.”

For a long time, Māori and Pasifika community leaders had called for resources and support, “then they got sick of waiting and just did it, and you saw the massive response to that approach”, said Poulton. “It’s about the power of devolution and trusting the wisdom and effectiveness of community delivery.”

The findings are published just days after the Dunedin Study, which follows a cohort of more than 1,000 people born in Dunedin in 1972 and 1973, celebrated its 50th birthday

The latest research, said Poulton, “highlights how with an amazing reservoir of goodwill and data, collected across half a century, we can quickly and agilely turn our attention to a current event and access this vast and rich information about our study members’ history to shed light on what might be driving current behaviour, and point out where you might want to change your strategy, in the short and long term.”

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