IDS working papers;224

MMR “choices” in Brighton : understanding public engagement with vaccination science and delivery

Published on 1 January 2004

In the context of the high-profile controversy that has unfolded in the UK around the combined measles,
mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and its possible adverse effects, this paper addresses how parents in
Brighton are thinking about MMR for their own children. Research focusing on parents’ engagement with
MMR has been dominated by analysis of the proximate influences on their choices, and in particular
scientific and media information, guiding policy to focus on information and education. The ethnographic
work in Brighton reported in this paper, to be complemented by survey work, begins to question the
validity of such reasoning by showing how wider personal and social issues shape parents’ immunisation
actions. Extended parental narratives show how parents’ practices around MMR are shaped by their
personal histories, by birth experiences and related feelings of control, by family health histories, by their
readings of their child’s health and particular strengths and vulnerabilities, by particular engagements with
health services, by processes of confidence-building and undermining, and by friendships and
conversations with others, which are themselves shaped by wider social differences and transformations.
“MMR talk” has become a social phenomenon. Many see vaccination as a personal decision which must
respond to the particularities of a child’s immune system. These perspectives both challenge key tenets of
public health policy, and suggest ways in which people’s engagements with MMR reflect wider changes in
their relations with science and the state.

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