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Most Docs Have Concerns About Delaying Vaccines But Do It Anyway

Boy getting vaccinated
(Image credit: Kuzmina)

When parents ask to delay their child's vaccinations, most doctors agree to do so, even though they think such action could be hazardous to the child's health, a new study finds.

Researchers surveyed more than 500 U.S. pediatricians and family physicians, and asked whether they had received a request from parents to "spread out" their child's vaccines over a longer period than the length of the recommended vaccine schedule. Some parents make these requests because they have concerns about the recommended vaccine schedule — for example, they may think that their child is getting too many vaccines in a short period, according to the study.

More than 90 percent of the doctors surveyed said they receive requests from parents to spread out vaccines, and 1 in 5 doctors said that at least 10 percent of their patients have made this request.

About three-quarters of doctors said that they agreed to such requests either "often/always" or "sometimes," while only a quarter said that they "rarely" complied with such requests. [5 Dangerous Vaccination Myths]

But nearly all doctors had concerns about straying from the recommended schedule: 87 percent said that parents who chose to spread out vaccines were putting their children at risk for contracting preventable infectious diseases, and 84 percent said the alternative schedules were more painful for children, because they had to come back to the doctor more times for injections.

"Virtually all providers encounter requests to spread out vaccines in a typical month, and despite concerns, most are agreeing to do so," the researchers wrote in a paper published online March 2 in the journal Pediatrics.

The doctors who were surveyed reported using a number of strategies to respond to these requests, including telling parents that they would immunize their own children according to the recommended schedule, and explaining that following an alternative schedule puts children at risk for infectious diseases. But physicians generally said that these strategies were not very effective in changing parents' minds.

Most physicians said they agree to the parents' requests because doing so helps to build trust with families, and denying the requests might cause families to leave and go to another doctor.

Because there has been very little research on alternative vaccination schedules, their safety is unknown. One study published in 2013 found that delaying measles vaccination was linked with an increased rate of experiencing fever or seizures. And outbreaks of whooping cough, chicken pox and measles have been linked with communities where too few children have received their vaccines on time, the researchers said.

The new findings point to the need for effective strategies to help doctors in their efforts to get parents to vaccinate their children on time, the authors concluded. Because vaccine discussions can take up a lot of time during child wellness visits, doctors may want to start to discuss vaccine schedules early, such as when they meet with parents before a child is born, the researchers said.

In addition, a strategy that reinforces vaccination as a social norm may be effective. "Amplifying the voice of the vast majority of parents who do follow vaccination recommendations in public messaging and in settings such as preschools and schools could be a powerful tool that, up to the present, has not been used on a large scale," said the researchers from the University of Colorado and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Proposed strategies should be tested for their effectiveness to see if they actually do get more parents to vaccinate their children on time, the researchers said.

Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.