The influence of social norms on the dynamics of vaccinating behaviour for paediatric infectious diseases

Tamer Oraby, Vivek Thampi, Chris T. Bauch


Mathematical models that couple disease dynamics and vaccinating behaviour often assume that the incentive to vaccinate disappears if disease prevalence is zero. Hence, they predict that vaccine refusal should be the rule, and elimination should be difficult or impossible. In reality, countries with non-mandatory vaccination policies have usually been able to maintain elimination or very low incidence of paediatric infectious diseases for long periods of time. Here, we show that including injunctive social norms can reconcile such behaviour-incidence models to observations. Adding social norms to a coupled behaviour-incidence model enables the model to better explain pertussis vaccine uptake and disease dynamics in the UK from 1967 to 2010, in both the vaccine-scare years and the years of high vaccine coverage. The model also illustrates how a vaccine scare can perpetuate suboptimal vaccine coverage long after perceived risk has returned to baseline, pre-vaccine-scare levels. However, at other model parameter values, social norms can perpetuate depressed vaccine coverage during a vaccine scare well beyond the time when the population's baseline vaccine risk perception returns to pre-scare levels. Social norms can strongly suppress vaccine uptake despite frequent outbreaks, as observed in some small communities. Significant portions of the parameter space also exhibit bistability, meaning long-term outcomes depend on the initial conditions. Depending on the context, social norms can either support or hinder immunization goals.

  • Received December 4, 2013.
  • Accepted January 14, 2014.
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