- Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Ethan Lindenberger, an Ohio teen who got vaccinated against his parents' wishes, spoke at a Senate hearing on Tuesday. The only non-medical professional witness, the high-schooler spoke about his decision to get vaccinated and how to correct the spread of misinformation.
Lindenberger, a senior at Norwalk High School in Huron County, made headlines
a few weeks ago when a Reddit post
of his from late November went viral. The thread, posted to "No Stupid Questions," asked users if he should get vaccinated without his parents' consent now that he's 18, and, if so, where.
"My parents think vaccines are some kind of government scheme," he wrote. "Because of their beliefs I've never been vaccinated for anything, god knows how I'm still alive."
Since turning 18, Lindenberger has been vaccinated at the Ohio Department of Health in Norwalk. According
to the Washington Post
, he received many standard vaccines, including influenza, HPV and hepatitis A and B. He's since joked about the process on Twitter.
While all states have laws
requiring vaccines for students, Ohio is one of 17 that allows exemptions for religious or philosophical beliefs. The majority of the country allows exclusively for religious exemptions, and only two states have just medical exemptions. In 2017, the Cleveland Clinic took
"appropriate disciplinary action" against a physician who penned an anti-vaccine op-ed in the Plain Dealer
On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (yes, they actually call themselves the HELP Senate Committee) convened. Their topic was "Vaccines Save Lives: What Is Driving Preventable Disease Outbreaks?" Lindenberger served as one of five witnesses, alongside healthcare workers such as Dr. John Wiesman, Washington state's Secretary of Health, and Dr. Saad B. Omer, professor of public health at Emory University.
The committee sought to discuss the famously dispelled myth that vaccines are linked to autism (most recently refuted in a study published
in the Annals of Internal Medicine
Monday), and how to combat preventable diseases, with an eye towards the recent measles outbreak in Washington state. In Cleveland, cases of the vaccine-preventable hepatitis A also doubled
"As I approached high school and began to critically think for myself, I saw that the information in defense of vaccines outweighed the concerns heavily," Lindberger said in his opening statement Tuesday. When he brought CDC evidence about the efficacy of vaccines to his mother, he said, she responded "that's what they want you to think."
Lindenberger went on to rebuke online sources that push anti-vaccine agendas. "They instill fear into the public for their own gain, selfishly, and do so knowing their information is incorrect," he said. "For my mother, her love, affection and care as a parent was used to push an agenda to create a false distress." (Later in the hearing, several health care professionals reiterated the severe financial conflict of interest the principal author of the since-retracted 1998 vaccine-autism study had.)
On the topic of online information, Lindenberger emphasized how necessary it is to teach people, especially adolescents, how to find credible sources. He cited Facebook as the greatest source of fuel for his mother's anti-vax ideology.
The hearing also covered herd immunity, a tenet of immunology that states the rate of a preventable illness in a population will go down if the rate of vaccination goes up.
"My decision to get vaccinated was around the health and safety of myself and other people," Lindenberger said.
The members of the committee were roundly complimentary of Lindenberger, notably former VP-candidate Tim Kaine. "I applaud your critical thinking skills and your willingness to share your story," said the Virginia Democrat.
Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) asked him about the debates he had with his family, which Lindenberger said involved much citing of opposing sources. "I'd love to be a guest at Thanksgiving dinner at your house," joked Isakson.
Lindberger also recently engaged in an AMA
("ask me anything") forum on Reddit, the home of his now-viral original post.
"I would say it’s not your job to convince people, it’s your job to find the evidence and compare notes," he wrote in response to a question about arguing with anti-vaxxers. "The thing people miss is that you’re usually taking to another human. Be nice, be respectful, and continue to affirm the truth. That’s the most genuine and kind thing we can do while not making the situation any less important."