A high-school senior who got vaccinated against his mother’s wishes just testified before the Senate — and accused anti-vaxxers of weaponizing her love

Ethan Lindenberger, who testified on Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labour and Pensions, recently started getting vaccines against his mother’s wishes. Senate Health, Education, Labour & Pensions Committee
  • Ethan Lindenberger, a high-school senior who recently turned 18, has been vaccinating himself against his mother’s wishes.
  • Lindenberger told a Senate committee on Tuesday that his mother’s “love, affection, and care as a parent was used” by anti-vaxxers on online platforms, including Facebook.
  • He said there aren’t two sides to an issue like vaccines: Study after study has found no link between vaccines and autism, despite misinformation online.
  • Measles is making a comeback in rich countries around the world, including the US, as more parents forgo vaccinating their kids.

There may be two teams on every high-school debate stage, but there are not two sides to every issue.

That’s the lesson that Ethan Lindenberger, a high-school senior, said he learned after taking it upon himself to research vaccines. His findings led him to get vaccinated against his mother’s wishes.

Testifying on Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labour, and Pensions, Lindenberger said: “My mother is an anti-vax advocate. I went my entire life without numerous vaccines.”

But Lindenberger said that in December, shortly after he turned 18, he began “catching up on immunizations,” despite what his mother wanted.

“There seems to always be two sides to a discussion,” he said. “This is not true in the vaccine debate.”

Scientists have been saying the same thing for years, and studies of hundreds of thousands of children have found no link between autism and vaccines. Still, misinformation continues to spread on social media, and vaccination rates are falling in certain pockets of the country. That has led to measles outbreaks, the most notable of which is ongoing in the Pacific Northwest.

The title of the Senate committee hearing was “Vaccines Save Lives: What Is Driving Preventable Disease Outbreaks?”

Lindenberger told the senators on the committee that when he approached his mother with facts and information from reputable sources like the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and scientific studies, she did not believe them.

“Her love, affection, and care as a parent was used,” Lindenberger said.

In one instance, he said, “she responded with ‘That’s what they want you to think.'”

Vaccine scepticism is surging, despite the facts

Lindenberger said his mother often shared misinformation through her Facebook page, serving as a kind of maternal foot soldier of false news.

Parents are increasingly opting out of shots for their kids. A2018 report listed potential “hotspots” for a disease outbreak – including Portland, Seattle, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Houston, and Detroit – because of high rates of unvaccinated kids. Religious communities that avoid vaccines because of their beliefs, such as the Amish and Orthodox Jews in New York, are also at risk.

Today, 47 states allow vaccine exemptions for religious reasons, philosophical reasons, or both. Jonathan McCullers, the pediatrician-in-chief at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, told senators at the hearing that if states continue to allow these types of exemptions, we can expect to see more dangerous outbreaks in the future.

Vaccine exemptions every state map

Measles is already making a comeback in the US and other countries, including Japan, France, and the UK. Last year,measles killed 72 people in Europe.

This year, over 200 people in the US have contracted measles – a number that would have been unheard of in 2000, when the country declared the virus eradicated.

In the Pacific Northwest, at least 70 people have been infected, most of them unvaccinated kids under 10 years old. One person was hospitalized, and Washington state has spent over $US1 million battling the outbreak.

Parents may not fully understand the risks of skipping vaccines

Child with measles CDC
A child with measles Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

An unvaccinated person doesn’t just put themselves at risk – they’re also a threat to people who can’t get vaccines for medical reasons.

“My school viewed me as a health threat,” Lindenberger said.

Babies who are too young for their shots are vulnerable if they spend time around unvaccinated people. Some people with weakened immune systems, like those with cancer or HIV, also can’t get vaccines, so they rely on others to get their shots. If enough people in a population do so, that keeps dangerous and communicable diseases from spreading within a community. This is called “herd immunity.”

The US has had strong herd immunity against diseases like measles for decades, but that has meant that many people don’t see or fully understand how bad these viruses and communicable diseases can be.

Lindenberger said more needed to be done to share the scary stories of people suffering from preventable diseases to help persuade parents that vaccinating their kids is the right thing to do.

“When you convince parents that not that information is incorrect but that their children are at risk,” he said, “that’s a much more substantial way to change their minds.”