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This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.

Parents say that insufficient information can lead them to regret their vaccination decision. They often want more information from trusted sources and expect practitioners to discuss both benefits and risks in good time before vaccination.

England and Wales are below World Health Organization (WHO) targets for the uptake of several immunisations. This Cochrane review of 38 qualitative studies focused on the views of parents in relation to communications about vaccinations for children under six. It found that parents who have not had their children vaccinated may distrust information received from state healthcare and government.

These findings could influence future NHS vaccination information, reminders and campaigns. Providing greater access to clear, simple and trustworthy information may be key to making informed choices. Enhanced training for practitioners could help too.

Why was this study needed?

Immunisation is one of the most successful, cost-effective public health measures and consequently a focus for UK healthcare providers. The childhood immunisation programme includes 12 vaccines routinely given to children aged up to nine years.

The WHO regional action plan (2015-20) for Europe aims for countries to achieve at least 95% coverage with three doses of DTP-containing vaccine. Uptake of most individual vaccines in England in 2015-16 had fallen below 95%. For example, around half of healthy five and six year olds had received the flu vaccine. In contrast, nearly 95% of five year olds had received the MMR vaccination, a record high.

Policymakers would like to understand the reasons for this uneven uptake. An NIHR-funded survey of parents (2017) found that concerns about the flu vaccine were associated with non-vaccination. An evaluation of a catch-up campaign aimed at teenagers in 2013 suggested publicity contributed to a rise in uptake amongst younger children.

This Cochrane qualitative review aimed to explore parents and informal caregivers’ experiences of communications about vaccination; and their perceptions of the impacts of communications on decisions.

What did this study do?

This Cochrane systematic review drew on 38 small-scale qualitative studies in 15 mostly high income countries. Ten studies were from the UK. The studies asked parents and informal caregivers about vaccination information and communications relating to children under six years. Most studies used focus groups or interviews. The communications could take place in or be distributed by any setting.

Over a third of the included studies were published before 2010. Settings, populations, vaccination information and practitioner training varied between countries.

To find studies, the authors searched health-focused databases.  In doing so they might have missed research in psychology, educational studies and other social sciences.

The qualitative studies were assessed for reliability using appropriate tools for this study type and the overall confidence in the evidence supporting the statements was rated using a relatively new tool called the GRADE-CERQual approach.

What did it find?

The findings of this qualitative research were presented narratively.

  • Parents generally found the amount of vaccination information they received to be inadequate and wanted more. High confidence; meaning it is highly likely that this review finding is a reasonable representation of the ‘phenomenon of interest’ – in this case parent experience and views.
  • Parents wanted an opportunity to reflect on detailed information and get questions ready before first and booster vaccinations. Moderate confidence; meaning that this is likely to represent parent experience and views.
  • Parents expected to talk about vaccination with health workers in tailored non-judgmental discussions. They would like conversations outside of vaccination appointments, including non-health settings and online. Low confidence; meaning that it is possible this is a reasonable representation of parent experience and views.
  • Some parents spoke of their mistrust of the objectivity of healthcare providers, the mass media and government sources. They believed that practitioners were influenced by financial incentives. This appeared to be especially amongst parents who held uncertain or negative attitudes towards vaccination. Moderate confidence; meaning that this is likely to represent parent experience and views.
  • Endorsement of vaccines from helpful trusted practitioners could lead to decisions to vaccinate. However, parents thought that pressure to vaccinate and prominent health campaigns could push them in either direction. High confidence; meaning that it is highly likely
  • Some UK parents remained concerned about the discredited link between MMR and autism.
  • Migrants (including those to the UK) could find it difficult to access translated information.

The last two findings were based on a limited number of studies and judged as lower quality.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

The 2009 NICE guideline on reducing differences in immunisation uptake recommended that healthcare workers provide tailored information and support, and discuss concerns with parents. In the linked 2017 Quality Standard, NICE proposes that services measure the number of recalls and reminders that are sent to non-vaccinated children.

Public Health England’s 2009 Core Curriculum for Immunisation Training stated that practitioners should address parents’ misperceptions, explain risks, provide leaflets in advance of vaccinations, and respect differing views. A recently published Royal College of Nursing quality framework in 2015 advises that all clinical and non-clinical children’s services staff should know how to signpost to vaccination information, and deal with controversies.

What are the implications?

Given the continued mistrust and confusion, NHS vaccination reminders and campaigns might wish to focus more on dispelling misinformation spread by media and social media.

The NHS could, for example, distribute balanced information from independent organisations trusted by parents. Disseminating through non-NHS settings such as children’s centres, supermarkets and pharmacies might help to inform parents before vaccination appointments. Enhanced training and advice for practitioners, and funding additional time spent with parents, may be needed.

The review findings support immunisation guidance from NICE, PHE and the Royal College of Nursing. Further research is needed to understand the decisions of groups highlighted in NICE guidance, such as homeless families, non-English speaking parents and teenage parents.

Citation and Funding

Ames HM, Glenton C, Lewin S. Parents' and informal caregivers' views and experiences of communication about routine childhood vaccination: a synthesis of qualitative evidence. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017;(2):CD011787.

The UK’s Effective Health Care Research Consortium contributed funding to this review.


NHS Choices. Childhood vaccines timeline. London: Department of Health; 2016.

NICE. Immunisations: reducing differences in uptake in under 19s. PH21. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2009.

NICE. Vaccine uptake in under 19s. QS145. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2017.

PHE. Core Curriculum for Immunisation Training. London: Health Protection Agency; 2009.

PHE. The Green Book (Immunisation against infectious disease).  London: Public Heath England; 2013.

Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre

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Qualitative research usually uses interviews, focus groups, documents or observations to explore the range of participants’ perceptions, experiences and behaviours. Findings are presented narratively rather than using statistics or numbers. Samples are typically much smaller than in quantitative research.

The parents who participated in the research studies were mainly mothers. No evidence was available specifically for fathers or informal caregivers such as grandparents.

Communications with parents can be one-way, as in information leaflets or mass media. They can be interactive, such as discussions with practitioners, or social media. The settings included in this review included healthcare, community venues and homes.


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