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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Making sense of perceptions of risk of diseases and vaccinations: a qualitative study combining models of health beliefs, decision-making and risk perception

Lyndal Bond1* and Terry Nolan2

Author Affiliations

1 MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, Glasgow, UK

2 School of Population Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

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BMC Public Health 2011, 11:943  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-943

Published: 20 December 2011

Abstract

Background

Maintaining high levels of childhood vaccinations is important for public health. Success requires better understanding of parents' perceptions of diseases and consequent decisions about vaccinations, however few studies have considered this from the theoretical perspectives of risk perception and decision-making under uncertainty. The aim of this study was to examine the utility of subjective risk perception and decision-making theories to provide a better understanding of the differences between immunisers' and non-immunisers' health beliefs and behaviours.

Methods

In a qualitative study we conducted semi-structured in-depth interviews with 45 Australian parents exploring their experiences and perceptions of disease severity and susceptibility. Using scenarios about 'a new strain of flu' we explored how risk information was interpreted.

Results

We found that concepts of dread, unfamiliarity, and uncontrollability from the subjective perception of risk and ambiguity, optimistic control and omission bias from explanatory theories of decision-making under uncertainty were useful in understanding why immunisers, incomplete immunisers and non-immunisers interpreted severity and susceptibility to diseases and vaccine risk differently. Immunisers dreaded unfamiliar diseases whilst non-immunisers dreaded unknown, long term side effects of vaccines. Participants believed that the risks of diseases and complications from diseases are not equally spread throughout the community, therefore, when listening to reports of epidemics, it is not the number of people who are affected but the familiarity or unfamiliarity of the disease and the characteristics of those who have had the disease that prompts them to take preventive action. Almost all believed they themselves would not be at serious risk of the 'new strain of flu' but were less willing to take risks with their children's health.

Conclusion

This study has found that health messages about the risks of disease which are communicated as though there is equality of risk in the population may be unproductive as these messages are perceived as unbelievable or irrelevant. The findings from this study have implications beyond the issue of childhood vaccinations as we grapple with communicating risks of new epidemics, and indeed may usefully contribute to the current debate especially in the UK of how these theories of risk and decision-making can be used to 'nudge' other health behaviours.