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What we know about parents’ decisions about vaccines: Reviewing the research

By Lauren Rockliffe, on 30 August 2016

Vaccines help prevent infectious diseases. It is important that most people get vaccines and if enough people are vaccinated, protection is also given to people who have not been vaccinated. This is known as herd immunity. Even though most children do get the vaccines they are offered, there are still some areas in the UK where there have been outbreaks of disease.

In general, parents in the UK need to give permission for children under the age of sixteen to have a vaccination. Whilst many parents choose for their children to be vaccinated, some parents decide not to. It is important for us to understand why parents might decide not to vaccinate their children, so that we can address any issues that might be stopping parents from vaccinating. Only once we understand the reasons for non-vaccination can we start to think of ways to tackle them, to try and increase uptake of childhood vaccinations. The best way for us to find out what these issues might be is to review existing research in this field, much of which has been qualitative. Qualitative research aims to understand a topic by finding out people’s opinions, attitudes, motivations etc. This is often done by conducting interviews or focus groups.

In our review, published this week, we aimed to do just this; to look at qualitative studies in the UK that had looked at vaccines for children, to try to understand what might influence parents’ decisions about vaccination. We reviewed a total of 34 studies. The results of each of these studies were then re-analysed to find common themes between them.

We found that parents make decisions about vaccination in two different ways: some made decisions automatically, and others made more intentional decisions.

Automatic decisions

Automatic decisions are decisions that are made by parents without too much thought. When parents made these types of decisions they were often happy to go along with the advice about vaccination that was being given to them from health professionals. Parents also made automatic decisions when they did not feel like they had a choice and/or when they were copying the decisions other people had made about vaccinating their children. These types of decisions are often made quickly and parents did not appear to weigh up the pros and cons of vaccination when making them.

Intentional decisions

Intentional decisions are decisions that parents have taken more time to think about. When parents made these types of decisions they often weighed up what they perceived to be the risks and benefits of vaccinating and often judged how appropriate it was to vaccinate their child based on other people’s advice or experiences. Many parents making intentional decisions felt responsible and/or were worried about being judged by other parents for the decision they were making. Parents’ emotions had an effect when making intentional decisions, as did the media and what was being reported about vaccination.

Additional factors

The media affected the trust that parents had in information they received about vaccination, and in medical professionals, the government and the NHS. Trust (or a lack of trust) was important for parents when making both automatic and intentional decisions. Practical issues, for example travelling to the vaccination clinic, having a lack of time or being unable to get an appointment, also affected the decisions of parents who had decided to vaccinate, regardless of whether they had made an automatic or intentional decision.

What does this tell us?

Many parents who made automatic decisions had decided to vaccinate their child. However, some of these parents had decided to vaccinate because they felt pressured to do so. Other parents had copied other people and not vaccinated their child. Some parents who made intentional decisions had involved others in their decision-making, by speaking to family members, friends or work colleagues.

The findings of this review highlight how important social factors are for parents when making decisions about vaccinating their child. The impact of one child not having a vaccination may go beyond just that child being unprotected, as that decision may influence other parents’ decisions. By understanding more about the decisions parents make about vaccinating their children we will be in a better position to start to think of things we can do to encourage more parents to give permission for their children to have childhood vaccinations.

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