Some teenagers of anti-vaccine parents are taking matters into their own hands.
Ethan Lindenberg, an 18-year-old high school senior from Norwalk, Ohio, gained notoriety when he posted a thread on Reddit seeking advice on obtaining vaccines. In his own words, he had not been vaccinated because his parents think vaccines are “some kind of government scheme.”1 Other self-described teens of anti-vax parents have taken to the social news aggregation website to voice similar concerns and inquire about inoculation laws.2,3
Concern is Rising Among Lawmakers
Meanwhile, the resurgence of measles in parts of the United States has caught the attention of lawmakers. Amid New York’s largest measles outbreak in recent history, state legislators proposed a bill that would allow children 14 years of age and older to undergo vaccination without parental consent. The law would cover vaccination for measles, mumps, tetanus, and a range of other diseases.4
“We are on the verge of a public health crisis,” said Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, who cosponsored the bill. “We’ve become complacent over the last couple of decades.”
How Did We Get Here? The Birth of the Modern Anti-Vaccine Movement
For years, opponents of vaccines have pointed to debunked theories such as that infection rates are so low it is unnecessary to vaccinate. However, the modern anti-vaccine movement began in earnest after a discredited study linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The study has since been retracted and the author, Andrew Wakefield, lost his medical license in 2010.5
Nonetheless, the anti-vax movement continues to grow, so much so that the World Health Organization declared it one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019.
Stating the Facts May Not Be Enough
Researchers at Dartmouth College offered a theory as to why anti-vax sentiments persist. They say it has to do with hysteresis, a phenomenon that describes how the impacts of a force can remain after the initial force has been altered or removed. Once Wakefield’s study caused people to question the safety and efficacy of the MMR vaccine, it became difficult for them to move beyond those negative associations.
The Spread of Misinformation
Speaking before the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, Lindenberg made the case that social media is largely responsible for the dissemination of misinformation about vaccines.6 He noted that his mother would “turn to social media groups and not factual sources” for vaccine information. “These sources which spread misinformation should be the primary concern of the American people,” he said.
To his point, a study published in the Royal Society for Public Health found that 41% of parents are often or sometimes exposed to negative messages about vaccines on social media. That figure increases to 50% among parents with children under the age of 5.7
Inoculation Consent Laws
In most states, children under the age of 18 must receive consent from a legal parent or guardian to receive a vaccine. However, some states allow “mature minors” to consent to medical procedures including vaccinations. The mature minor exception takes into account the child’s age, ability to understand the treatment, and self-sufficiency.8
Currently, 18 states allow mature minors to consent to medical treatment: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, and West Virginia.9
In New York, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out in support of the state’s proposed legislation, arguing that it aligns with the mature minor exception to parental consent. In addition, they contend that young people are better at recognizing false reports online. “Young people are often more conscious about the misinformation on the internet,” the organization wrote.4
The Teens’ Impact on Fellow Children of Anti-Vaxxers
Lindenberg’s congressional testimony about his mother’s succumbing to online vaccine conspiracy theories shed new light on an issue that has captured significant attention nationally. It also inspired other teens in similar situations to speak up. Lindenberg notes that he has received positive feedback from other teens who have read his story and gained the strength to discuss the matter with their parents.10
- My parents are kind of stupid and don’t believe in vaccines. Now that I’m 18, where do I go to get vaccinated? Can I get vaccinated at my age? Reddit. 2018. Accessed March 13, 2019.
- I’m a minor who wishes to get vaccinated. What are my options? Reddit. 2019. Accessed March 13, 2019.
- Minor consent to vaccination. Reddit. 2018. Accessed March 13, 2019.
- McKinley J. Facing measles outbreak, NY lawmakers want to let teenagers get vaccines on their own. The New York Times. March 11, 2019. Accessed March 13, 2019.
- Park A. Doctor behind vaccine-autism link loses license. Time. May 24, 2010. Accessed March 13, 2019.
- Boghani P. Officials say social media plays a role in the spread of vaccine misinformation. PBS. March 7, 2019. Accessed March 13, 2019.
- Moving the needle: promoting vaccination uptake across the life course. Royal Society for Public Health. December 2018. Accessed March 13, 2019.
- Whyte C. Can teenagers get vaccinated without their parents’ permission? New Science. February 14, 2019. Accessed March 13, 2019.
- How can I get vaccinated if my parents are anti-vaccine? Vaxopedia. Accessed March 13, 2019.
- Allen K, Davis L, Harrison C. After defying anti-vax mom, Ohio teen explains why he got vaccinated. Good Morning America. February 12, 2019. Accessed March 13, 2019.