By Lauren Rearick
In December 2018, an 18-year-old student asked Reddit for help: How and where should he go in order to finally get vaccinated? He went viral, and three months later, found himself sitting in front of the Senate, testifying about his experience as an unvaccinated child.
In a hearing on Tuesday, March 5, the student, Ethan Lindenberger, shared what it was like to grow up in a home where vaccines were not permitted with the Senate Committee on Health, Education Labor, and Pensions, Buzzfeed reported. According to Lindenberger, his mother believed misinformation shared by social media that falsely links vaccines to autism and brain damage. The Centers for Disease Control has refuted these claims, noting that there is “no link between receiving vaccines and developing autism spectrum disorder.”
“I grew up understanding my mother's beliefs that vaccines were dangerous," he said. "She would speak openly about these views. Both online and in person she would voice her concerns and these beliefs were met with strong criticism. Over the course of my life seeds of doubts were planted and questions arose because of the backlash my mother would receive."
The Ohio student said that he went unvaccinated until the age of 18, when he was legally able to obtain his own vaccinations, CBS News reported. As of January 2019, the National Conference of State Legislature reports that all 50 states require vaccinations for students to attend school, but there are exceptions for parents who wish to opt out. Forty-seven states permit parents or guardians to forgo their child’s school-required immunizations for religious beliefs, and 17 states also allow for a child to go unvaccinated if the parent has personal, moral, or other beliefs about the procedure.
Between 2017 and 2018, the number of measles cases rose by 559 percent in the United States. In Washington, 55 confirmed cases of the disease, which can be prevented with vaccination, prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency in January. And as vaccination rates in the United States continue to fall, Congress is getting involved, holding a series of hearings regarding the rise in measles cases.
According to Lindenberger, he initially sourced information from the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and medical journals, and later turned to users on Reddit for help, asking where he could go to get vaccinated. In December 2018, one month after creating his original Reddit thread, he reported back, saying that he had started vaccinations.
“My mom was especially angry but my dad said because I’m 18 he doesn’t care that much,” he later wrote in an update. “Although my mom’s trying to convince me to not do it and saying I don’t care about her, I know that this is something I need to do regardless.”
Despite going against what his mother believed, Lindenberger doesn’t believe that her decision was “ill-natured.” Instead, he attributed her position to misinformation on vaccines that is widely circulated on social media and the Internet. “Certain individuals and organizations which spread misinformation and instill fear into the public for their own gain selfishly put countless people at risk,” he said. “Using the love, affection, and care of a parent for their children to push an agenda and create false distress is shameful. The sources which spread misinformation should be the primary concern of the American people.”
In his closing remarks, Lindenberger argued that anti-vaccination information not based in scientific fact should be held responsible for the continued spread of infectious diseases. “Between social media platforms, to using a parent’s love as a tool, these lies cause people to distrust in vaccination, furthering the impact of a preventable disease outbreak and even contributing to the cause of diseases spreading,” he said. “This needs to change and I only hope my story contributes to such advancements.”
Lindenberger isn’t the only young person who has taken health into his own hands; as the Washington Post reports, at least two other teenagers have taken similar measures. A 15-year-old from Minnesota and a student residing in the state of Washington also shared stories on Reddit of wanting to be vaccinated.