One teens story of breaking with his anti-vaxxer parents went viral. Now he wants to be a voice for the importance of vaccines
Last November, Ohio teen Ethan Lindenberger entered a subcommunity on Reddit called No Stupid Questions and wrote:
Now that Im 18, where do I go to get vaccinated?
While a teen getting routine shots is an unremarkable event for most families, Lindenberger was raised to believe that vaccines cause brain damage, autism and other developmental issues. But nearing the end of high school, he had come to think differently. And he needed advice:
As the title explains, my parents think vaccines are some kind of government scheme. Its stupid and Ive had countless arguments over the topic. But, because of their beliefs Ive never been vaccinated for anything, god knows how Im still alive. But, im a senior in high school now with a car, a license, and money of my own Id assume that I can get them on my own but Ive just never had a conversation with anyone about the subject.
Lindenbergers Reddit post made headlines across the United States as a measles outbreak in Washington state refueled debates around the small, but energetic anti-vaccination movement in the country. The social media post gave people hope that those raised to believe unfounded claims about vaccines could change their minds and make a different decision than their parents.
Close to two dozen teens and young adults have reached out to him on Reddit and Instagram since journalists began writing about him, Lindenberger told the Guardian. But theres no evidence indicating a wave of children are defying their parents to get vaccinated.
Though its too soon to say whether more young adults will follow in Lindenbergers footsteps, the teens story and the response to it have helped dispel the monolithic image of the anti-vaxx community, and have provided public health officials with clues on how to better approach those hesitant of vaccines.
I can actually do something about this
Vaccines have provoked hesitation and skepticism since scientists began experimenting with the first inoculations in the 1800s. Experts agree that the current age of vaccine skepticism is largely rooted in a now debunked and retracted 1998 study that claimed to find a connection between the MMR shot, or the measles, mumps and rubella combination vaccine, and the onset of autism.
As anti-vaccination sentiment around the world has grown, countries like the Philippines, Israel and Ukraine are experiencing large, fatal outbreaks of measles. In small, under-vaccinated communities in the US, measles is also spreading, mostly among unvaccinated children in New York City, Washington and Texas.
Growing up in Norwalk, Ohio, Lindenberger never questioned his parents decision to stop vaccinating him and their other children when he was two years old. But doubt crept in at 13 or 14, after seeing the angry and aggressive responses to a post his mother had written on social media about the dangers of vaccines. People called his mothers post propaganda and false information, Lindenberger told the Guardian. Why has this thing that has been so black and white suddenly seem like theres a lot more to it? he wondered.
In high school, Lindenberger began reading more about the other side of the vaccine debate. His search led him to peer-reviewed studies and articles published by the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eventually, he concluded there was scientific evidence that vaccines were more likely to prevent devastating and fatal disease, but no proof that those vaccines caused autism and other developmental issues. He confronted his parents, who stood their ground and reiterated their beliefs that vaccines would harm him.
When he turned 18, a friend helped him realize that he was old enough to choose to get vaccinated, with or without his parents consent. Thats when he turned to Reddit.
Thats when it clicked for me this opinion that Id disagreed with her on for at least a year or two now can become action, said Lindenberger. I can actually do something about this.
Lindenberger has since gotten vaccines for HPV, flu, hepatitis A and tetanus, and he and his medical team have come up with a schedule for the rest of them.
Teen rebellion and social platforms
Public health experts and researchers who study vaccine skeptics point at various reasons why some teens move to question the anti-vaccination beliefs they were raised with and make a different decision about their health.
For some, it could boil down to the different ways older and younger generations use the internet and consume media. The parents of teens might be accessing anti-vaccination information and online communities through Facebook, blogs and websites, while their teens might be on a platform like Reddit, where anti-vaccination influence has yet to gain a foothold, said Dr Peter Hotez, the dean of the national school of tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and author of the book Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachels Autism, a memoir about his own daughter.
In addition, Hotez argues, the so-called anti-vaxxer community is diverse.When I look at vaccine-hesitant parents, roughly two-thirds of them are not deeply dug in, Hotez said about the families in his own practice and research. They read some garbage on the internet or Facebook or [watched] the documentary Vaxxed, but you can talk them off the ledge.
Its true [that] theres another 10 to 15% that are deeply dug in and completely buy the conspiracy theories, but I think thats a minority.
Indeed, research shows that only a small percentage of parents are seriously worried about the safety of vaccines, while most who are hesitant agree that vaccines are necessary but have questions and doubts about their safety. For example, a 2011 survey of 748 parents found that of the 13% who said they followed an alternative vaccination schedule, only 17% said they refused all shots, while others either refused only certain injections or delayed them.
Another reason could also be developmentally normal individuation, said Elisa Sobo, the chair of the anthropology department at San Diego State University.
In the teen years, as they start to individuate, [teens] often try things to distinguish themselves from their parents, Sobo said. One way could be to question vaccination skepticism.
And as a researcher who studies selective-vaccinating families, Sobo also says she isnt surprised to see some teens breaking off from their parents beliefs.
Many, if not most families that selectively vaccinate, [also] promote thinking for yourself, she said. These teens may have been raised to question authority, and this line of thinking eventually extended to the authority of their own parents.
The butt of the joke
Eighteen-year-old John P from New Jersey took to Reddit with a similar question to Lindenbergers last January. A military scholarship he had won for college required him to be fully vaccinated, but he had only received a few vaccinations in childhood.
Hed only realized his family approached things differently at the age of 16, when he beganlaughing at anti-vaxxer memes on Reddit, but soon realized that his family might be the butt of the joke.
I thought it was funny, said John. Then my mom started talking about it, and I was like, Oh shit, Im one of those kids.
Johns mother explained that when John was a young child, he had a severe reaction to a vaccine and even had to go to the hospital. The incident, which John believes to be a coincidence, put her off the prospect of continuing his vaccinations.
Now that his scholarship requires vaccines, however, she is facilitating doctors visits for John to get all caught up before school begins in the fall.
She knows that I cant go to school without the scholarship, and that I cant get the scholarship without the shots, said John. She doesnt like getting it done, but shes more than willing to help me because it saves money in the long run.
A voice for scientific evidence
The diversity of anti-vaccination families offers several inroads for public health experts who want to encourage them to comply with the USs recommended vaccine schedule.
For one, skeptical or fearful parents who have questions about vaccines shouldnt be shut down or ridiculed for expressing their thoughts, said Heidi Larson, the director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Many people who develop anti-vaccine views did not start that way but become more rigid in reaction to what they see as the orthodoxy and rigidity of science and medicine, she said.
When they say youre stupid, slap you in the face and give you moralizing rhetoric, this is not going to make you feel good, Sobo echoed. Youre trying to educate yourself, and to be cut down for that is going to make you turn away from mainstream healthcare.
Lindenberger agrees with the experts. He said that pro-vaccination arguments cant be successful without taking into account the emotions of the people who are hesitant about shots, and that while he acknowledges his parents are misinformed about this one issue, he loves his parents, respects them and is grateful for their care.
He hopes to go to seminary and eventually take on a pastoral role, and says that this brief foray into public health communication and education has made him realize that wherever he ends up serving, he wants to continue to be a voice for scientific evidence on the importance of vaccines.
I would really want a church to either allow my pastoral position to vocalize those ideas, or to allow me to distinguish between my pastoral role and my personal role as a citizen and as a human being to speak out on issues like this, he said.
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