The number of parents who opt out of required vaccinations for their children is growing, and Jennifer Reich, associate professor in the department of sociology and criminology, has been studying this behavior and potential ramifications for children and society.
Reich’s research started with a focus on parents who reject vaccines completely or agree to a select few. Over the years she has added perspectives from other stakeholders within the community, such as pediatricians, researchers, policymakers, activists and attorneys in the federal vaccine injury court system.
“By talking to different players in vaccine questions, I hope to trace the different ideologies, values and perspectives of different people who care deeply about vaccine safety, while also identifying some of the points of disconnect among them,” says Reich, who has a PhD in sociology from the University of California, Davis.
Although not many parents reject vaccinations, those who do tend to be white and college educated and have a family income of over $75,000, Reich says.
“These families look really different from those whose children are not fully vaccinated because they lack consistent access to a health care provider,” she says. “In thinking about the social meanings of vaccine resistance, it’s important to think about the ways this represents a privileged practice that has potential ramifications for members of the communities in which unvaccinated kids live and travel.”
Reich contends that her project is largely about the boundaries between community responsibility and individual choice.
“Parents aim to do what is best for their children with the resources they have. Those who opt out of vaccines really see this as the best way to protect their children’s health,” Reich says. “Unfortunately, they underestimate the effect infectious disease can have on other children who might be too young to be vaccinated, have a health reason that they cannot be vaccinated, or for whom the vaccine didn’t work.”
People in the community with cancer, organ transplants, autoimmune diseases or HIV are also placed at risk, she said.
“I hope that in pulling together different perspectives, parents might see the ways their choices are part of a larger question of community health.”
Reich’s current book project will be published in 2014. She is also the author of “Fixing Families: Parents, Power, and the Child Welfare System” which explores how social workers, attorneys and parents whose children have been removed from their homes by the child protective services system negotiate power to determine if and when children can return home.
“I became interested in studying child welfare because I wanted to understand the experiences of parents who have lost their children because the state sees them as failing parents,” Reich says. “After finishing ‘Fixing Families,’ I wanted to continue exploring questions of how parents make decisions about their children, in dialogue with public policy and government regulation.”
Reich joined the University of Denver in 2004. Her areas of interest include family, health care, welfare and law and public policy. In the classroom, she enjoys giving her students an opportunity to closely examine topics in popular culture — such as pregnancy, birth control, childhood or health — by looking at statistics, examining legal regulation, reading history and making sense of what research shows compared to how most people understand the issues.
Outside of the classroom she will continue exploring the intersections between individuals, families and the law. “So much is at stake as families interpret government policies and make decisions for their own well-being,” she says.