Defying Parents, A Teen Decides To Get Vaccinated

Feb 9, 2019
Originally published on February 10, 2019 2:22 pm

Ethan Lindenberger is getting vaccinated for well, just about everything.

He's 18 years old, but had never received vaccines for diseases like hepatitis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, or the chickenpox.

Lindenberger's mother, Jill Wheeler, is anti-vaccine. He said she has been influenced by online misinformation, such as a debunked study that claimed certain vaccines were linked with autism, or a theory that vaccines cause brain damage. Incorrect ideas like these have spread like wildfire, so much so that the CDC has explicitly tried to combat them, posting pages like "Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism."

Lindenberger's eldest sister is vaccinated, and his eldest brother is partially immunized, but once his mother found out that she had the right to opt-out of vaccinations, she chose not to vaccinate her younger five children.

"God knows how I'm still alive," Lindenberger wrote on Reddit last November.

Despite his mother's belief that vaccines are bad, Ethan Lindenberger decided to get his shots.
Courtesy of Ethan Lindenberger

In his Reddit post, Lindenberger goes on to ask for help figuring out how to get vaccinated. He got more than 1,000 responses. His post joins similar ones from other unvaccinated teenagers trying to get their shots, despite their parents' beliefs.

At a time of widespread measles outbreaks in the Pacific Northwest, causing Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency, more minors are raising questions about whether they can provide their own consent to get vaccines.

According to the CDC, for month of January this year, measles have been confirmed in 10 states, with the agency monitoring other outbreaks in New York state and New York City.

Growing up, Lindenberger said he listened to what his mom told him about how vaccines were bad and carried negative side effects. He thought it was normal to not receive vaccines.

But then in school, Lindenberger got pulled out of class and asked by educators to get vaccinated. He talked with friends and realized all of them had been vaccinated, but that he didn't even know what a flu shot felt like. He saw more and more anti-vaccination debates popping up on social media. Slowly, he started to question what his mother had told him.

So, he did some research of his own.

"When I started looking into it myself, it became very apparent that there was a lot more evidence in defense of vaccinations, in their favor," Lindenberger told NPR's Scott Simon on Weekend Edition.

After researching, Lindenberger tried to confront his mother, approaching her with an article from the CDC about how vaccines don't cause autism.

"Her response was simply 'that's what they want you to think,' " he said. "I was just blown away that you know, the largest health organization in the entire world would be written off with a kind of conspiracy theory-like statement like that."

Despite repeated efforts to debate vaccination with his mother and show her the impact of the anti-vaccination movement on public health, Lindenberger has been unable to change her mind. But his own mind was made up: he was going to get vaccinated.

Lindenberger recently received his first round of shots — for diseases such as HPV, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and influenza. It has caused some stress in his Norwalk, Ohio home, where he lives with both of his parents.

"My mom had always known I disagreed with her and figured that was going to pass, but it didn't," he said. "She looked at it as me getting vaccines for a gesture of rebellion and not for my own sake and for the sake of people around me."

In an interview with the science magazine Undark, Lindenberger's mother said that his decision to get vaccinations felt like an insult and called it "a slap in the face."

Since he's now legally an adult, Lindenberger's mother cannot stop him from getting the vaccinations. For minors who want to get their shots, it can be trickier, since there are no federal laws regulating the issue. Instead, a minor's ability to get vaccinated varies depending on state laws. In many cases, 18 is the requirement to get medical procedures without a parent's consent.

Though she can't control his decision, Lindenberger said his mother still tries to convince him not to continue with vaccinations.

While he doesn't question his mother's love, Lindenberger said he questions her judgment. He has more shots scheduled for later this month.

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An outbreak of measles in the Pacific Northwest has again put the issue of vaccinations front and center. Most of the people infected have been children who were not vaccinated. Parents can choose whether or not to vaccinate their children. And children, by and large, are bound by that decision.

Ethan Lindenberger is one such youngster. He is now a high-school senior from Norwalk, Ohio. His parents are opposed to vaccinations. But when he turned 18, he decided to rethink that decision.

ETHAN LINDENBERGER: What mainly happened was I had grown up just listening to my mom and what she had told me and just assumed that was the case - that I wasn't vaccinated because vaccines are bad, and they cause all these bad effects.

And - but as I grew up and spoke to friends and saw how online, there was a large debate and heated argument between both sides of this issue, I saw that this was not as much of a black-and-white universal truth. And when I started to look into it myself, it became very apparent there was a lot more evidence, you know, in defense of vaccinations - in their favor.

SIMON: Was there a moment when you said to your mother and/or father, look; it's not safe not to get vaccinations?

LINDENBERGER: For sure. I remember I approached my mom with an article by the CDC and asked why, according to the CDC, vaccines don't cause autism and why mercury is not this extremely dangerous substance and poison found in vaccines that, you know, some people like herself would claim. And her response was simply, that's what they want you to think.

And I was just blown away that, you know, the largest health organization in the entire world would be written off with a conspiracy theory-like statement like that. And so moments like that I can recall back to, where I just thought, like, the concern with the evidence is not here.

SIMON: When did you get vaccinated? When did you start?

LINDENBERGER: I had two vaccines when I was 2 years old. My mom claims that one of those did not happen, or it happened against her will, and the only vaccine I should have gotten was a tetanus shot when I was 2. And that was it. Alongside that, I've never got any other vaccines - hepatitis, polio - anything.

And the vaccines I did get were hepatitis A, hepatitis B and a few other vaccines, including a tetanus shot. And I have more this month.

SIMON: How are things at home?

LINDENBERGER: Strange. When I got my vaccinations, my mom had always known I disagreed with her and figured that that was going to pass, but it didn't. And once I actually had finally went out and got vaccinations, it caused some stress in the house where she looked at it as me getting vaccines for a gesture of rebellion and not for my own sake and for the sake of people around me.

SIMON: Your mother said in the digital science magazine Undark - she emphasized that she had made this decision because she thought it was the best thing for you. And then she called your decision...


SIMON: ...Quote, "a slap in the face" and then said, it was like him spitting on me. Must hurt to hear those words from your mother, even thirdhand.

LINDENBERGER: Not necessarily. I mean, my mom is a very strong-willed person. And it's something to where I disagree with her very wholeheartedly and very politely. And even if it does hurt, I know that that's not a reaction that is deserved. So I try not to take it too much to heart.

SIMON: Yeah. You don't doubt her love, but you do question her judgment.

LINDENBERGER: Yeah, absolutely. That's a great way to put it. And I think a lot of people that are in a similar situation as mine can question a parent's, you know, love or care for their child to deny them a medical procedure. And some people can even compare vaccines to something like a seat belt. How would you love a child and deny them the safety of a seat belt?

But from her point of view, you can see how, if these things are truly to be believed, that it would make sense to try and push and defend and avoid something as dangerous as vaccines if it's causing polio, if it's causing autism, if it's causing brain damage. But it's simply just not true. And so I have to try and make amends with that.

SIMON: Ethan Lindenberger, high school senior in Norwalk, Ohio - thanks so much for being with us.

LINDENBERGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.