Objectives To explain vaccination refusal in a sample of Australian parents. Design Qualitative design, purposive sampling in a defined population. Setting A geographically bounded community of approximately 30 000 people in regional Australia with high prevalence of vaccination refusal. Participants Semi structured interviews with 32 non-vaccinating parents: 9 fathers, 22 mothers and 1 pregnant woman. Purposive sampling of parents who had decided to discontinue or decline all vaccinations for their children. Recruitment via local advertising then snowballing. Results Thematic analysis focused on explaining decision-making pathways of parents who refuse vaccination. Common patterns in parents' accounts included: perceived deterioration in health in Western societies; a personal experience introducing doubt about vaccine safety; concerns regarding consent; varied encounters with health professionals (dismissive, hindering and helpful); a quest for the real truth'; reactance to system inflexibilities and ongoing risk assessment. Conclusions We suggest responses tailored to the perspectives of non-vaccinating parents to assist professionals in understanding and maintaining empathic clinical relationships with this important patient group.