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18-Year-Old Testifies About Getting Vaccinated Despite Mother's Anti-Vaccine Beliefs

Ethan Lindenberger of Norwalk, Ohio, told senators "the information in defense of vaccines outweighed the concerns heavily."
Jim Watson
AFP/Getty Images
Ethan Lindenberger of Norwalk, Ohio, told senators "the information in defense of vaccines outweighed the concerns heavily."

Eighteen-year-old Ethan Lindenberger appeared before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Tuesday to talk about how he decided to get vaccinated against the wishes of his mother, who is anti-vaccine.

Lindenberger is a senior at Norwalk High School in Norwalk, Ohio. He gained attention in November by asking about how to get vaccinated despite the opposition of his "kind of stupid parents" in a discussion on Reddit.

Anti-vaccine proponents espouse a widely discredited view that vaccines can cause autism or brain damage.

Lindenberger grew up without common vaccinations such as those for measles and chicken pox before finally getting immunizations starting in December. He described being pulled out of class each year and told he needed to get his shots, only to be opted out each time by his mother.

Most states allow parents to claim a religious exemption to vaccination requirements for their children to attend school. Seventeen states currently allow parents to opt out of vaccinations for personal or philosophical reasons.

But leaving children unvaccinated runs the risk of them contracting and spreading diseases such as measles, which can lead to death in extreme cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 206 cases of measles in 11 states in January and February of this year.

Lindenberger's mother got most of her misinformation about vaccines on Facebook, he told the committee. Meanwhile, he got information about vaccines from the CDC, the World Health Organization and scientific journals, he said.

Facebook has come under scrutiny by health advocates and lawmakers over anti-vaccination groups and ads on its network. Rep. Adam Schiff wrote to Mark Zuckerberg last month out of concern that Facebook and Instagram are "surfacing and recommending messages" that discourage children's vaccination. The company told The Washington Post it has "taken steps to reduce the distribution of health-related misinformation on Facebook, but we know we have more to do."

Lindenberger told the committee that as he "approached high school and began to critically think for myself, I saw that the information in defense of vaccines outweighed the concerns heavily."

He said his mother was victim of "deeply rooted misinformation" online. He said parents who question vaccines are not acting out of malice but actual concern for their children. But at the same time, Lindenberger said organized groups that spread disinformation "instill fear into the public for their own gain, selfishly" and "should be the primary concern of the American people."

Lindenberger's mother, Jill Wheeler, told the Associated Press that she "didn't agree with anything he said" but was proud of his appearance before the committee. "They've made him the poster child for the pharmaceutical industry," she told the AP.

Measles is highly contagious and can live in a room for two hours after an infected person coughed or sneezed. The measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is 93 percent or more effective at preventing measles, according to the CDC.

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James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.