By Kayla Epstein
Ethan Lindenberger began by questioning his parents’ anti-vaccine stances and eventually got himself inoculated, a rebellion that caught the attention of the national media and Congress.
The 18-year-old from Ohio announced on YouTube that he had been invited to speak Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions at a hearing devoted to examining outbreaks of preventable diseases.
The teen will appear alongside experts such as Washington state’s secretary of health and pediatrics professors from Emory and the University of Tennessee at the Senate hearing, “Vaccines Save Lives: What Is Driving Preventable Disease Outbreaks?”
Lindenberger’s story caught on amid measles outbreaks that have affected more than 100 people in the United States this year, prompting increasing scrutiny of parents who do not get their children vaccinated. The teenager said he lived for years without being vaccinated because of his mother’s belief in vaccine conspiracies.
So Lindenberger began to do his own homework, consulting scientific research and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In November, he posted on Reddit asking for advice about how to get vaccinated. In December, Lindenberger went to the Ohio Department of Health in his hometown and received a battery of standard vaccinations that included hepatitis A, hepatitis B, influenza and HPV, according to records reviewed by The Washington Post. Because he was 18, he could legally make the decision to do so.
“I looked into it; it was clear there was way more evidence in defense of vaccines,” he told The Post in February.
His mother, Jill Wheeler, told Undark, an online science magazine that first reported Lindenberger’s story, that her son’s decision was “like him spitting on me, saying ‘You don’t know anything, I don’t trust you with anything.’ “
According to Lindenberger’s Reddit post, his father was less resistant to the idea since he was of legal age.
Ohio is one of 17 states that allow parents to opt out of vaccines for philosophical or moral reasons. Lindenberger has four younger siblings, including a 2-year-old sister who he says will probably not be vaccinated.
“It breaks my heart that she could get measles and she’d be done,” Lindenberger told The Post.
The Senate hearing comes as more than 70 people have contracted measles in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon and Washington state allow parents to opt out of vaccinating their children for personal or philosophical reasons, and the region is home to a particularly vocal concentration of parents who choose not to get their children vaccinated. Washington state is hoping to pass a bill to narrow the exemptions for vaccines but is facing opposition from “anti-vaxxers,” who support a debunked conspiracy theory that vaccines cause health conditions such as autism.
The CDC says measles outbreaks can be linked to an increase in the number of people who travel abroad and bring the disease back to the United States and to communities with pockets of individuals who aren’t vaccinated. According to the CDC, there were 17 outbreaks nationwide last year, primarily concentrated in three states. The outbreaks were associated with some communities of Orthodox Jews who chose not to vaccinate and contracted the disease when travelers returned from Israel, which was experiencing an outbreak.
In 2017, an outbreak that affected 75 people in a Somali American community in Minnesota was attributed to low vaccination coverage.