Un­vac­ci­nated teens get shots, re­buk­ing par­ents

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ALEX HORTON

Ethan Lin­den­berger, frus­trated by years of ar­gu­ments about his mother’s anti-vac­ci­na­tion stance, staged a quiet de­fec­tion on Red­dit.

The Nor­walk, Ohio, teenager needed ad­vice, he said, on how to in­oc­u­late him­self against both in­fec­tious dis­eases and his fam­ily’s dogma. At 18, he was old enough, Lin­den­berger ex­plained. He wanted to get vac­ci­nated. But he didn’t know how.

“Be­cause of their be­liefs I’ve never been vac­ci­nated for any­thing, God knows how I’m still alive,” Lin­den­berger wrote days be­fore Thanks­giv­ing.

As anti-vac­ci­na­tion move­ments metas­ta­size amid out­breaks of dan­ger­ous dis­eases, In­ter­net-savvy teenagers are factcheck­ing their par­ents’ de­ci­sions in a dig­i­tal health reawak­en­ing — and seek­ing their own treat­ments in bouts of fam­ily de­fi­ance.

“This gen­er­a­tion of un­vac­ci­nated chil­dren com­ing of age has looked at the sci­ence and want to pro­tect them­selves,” said Al­li­son Win­nike, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Im­mu­niza­tion Part­ner­ship, a Texas-based non­profit vac­cine ad­vo­cacy group.

Anti-vac­ci­na­tion ef­forts spread af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of a now-de­bunked 1998 study link­ing some im­mu­niza­tions to autism, Win­nike said.

“Now you’re see­ing chil­dren com­ing of age, out from a cloud of mis­in­for­ma­tion,” Win­nike told The Wash­ing­ton Post on Mon­day.

That trans­for­ma­tion, like the spread of vac­ci­na­tion fears, has taken place on­line.

At least three self-de­scribed teenagers from dif­fer­ent states re­cently an­nounced on Red­dit they have a com­mon prob­lem: Their par­ents are staunchly op­posed to vac­ci­na­tion, and they fear for their health if they do not take ac­tion.

Lin­den­berger’s post drew more than 1,200 com­ments, in­clud­ing one from some­one who iden­ti­fied as a nurse and pro­vided de­tailed in­for­ma­tion on nav­i­gat­ing the health-care sys­tem.

For Lin­den­berger, the ten­sion over vac­cines started years ago af­ter he be­gan to no­tice his mother post­ing anti-vac­ci­na­tion videos on so­cial me­dia, he told The Post on Sun­day. His friends were get­ting vac­ci­nated. So what was hap­pen­ing in his house?

Lin­den­berger read sci­en­tific pa­pers and jour­nals. He pulled up Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion stud­ies on his phone at the din­ner ta­ble, hop­ing his mother would re­lent and get him and his four younger sib­lings — now ages 16, 14, 5 and 2 — vac­ci­nated.

“I looked into it; it was clear there was way more ev­i­dence in de­fense of vac­cines,” he said.

His mother, Jill Wheeler, re­sisted; she claimed vac­cines are health risks.

Wheeler was an­gered by his pur­suit, she told Un­dark, an on­line sci­ence mag­a­zine. “It was like him spit­ting on me, say­ing ‘ You don’t know any­thing, I don’t trust you with any­thing. You don’t know what you’re talk­ing about. You did make a bad de­ci­sion and I’m gonna go fix it,’ ” she told the site.

Wheeler did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment from The Post.

Dif­fer­ent state laws af­fect how mi­nors can pur­sue their med­i­cal in­ter­ests. Most states do not al­low any­one younger than 18 to pur­sue med­i­cal care with­out guardian ap­proval, in­clud­ing im­mu­niza­tions, Win­nike said.

In Ohio and 16 other states, par­ents can opt out of re­quired vac­cines for philo­soph­i­cal rea­sons. The Dis­trict of Columbia and all but three states al­low the ex­emp­tion on re­li­gious grounds. (All 50 states and D.C. al­low opt­ing out for med­i­cal rea­sons.)

Late last year, Lin­den­berger, now a high school se­nior, con­fided in a pas­tor, who sug­gested he was legally free to make de­ci­sions.

On Dec. 17, he walked into an Ohio Depart­ment of Heath of­fice in Nor­walk and re­ceived a cock­tail of vac­cines for hep­ati­tis A, hep­ati­tis B, in­fluenza and HPV, ac­cord­ing to a shot record viewed by The Post.

He has shots listed for tetanus and hep­ati­tis B, ad­min­is­tered when he was 2, but Wheeler told Un­dark he re­ceived the tetanus shot af­ter he ac­ci­den­tally cut him­self. The other must be a pa­per­work mis­take, she said.

Lin­den­berger said he has seen a grow­ing dis­cus­sion on­line about teenagers em­bold­ened to make their own health de­ci­sions and seek vac­ci­na­tions.

In Wash­ing­ton state, a self-de­scribed un­der­age teen wrote in Jan­uary that their mother would not al­low vac­cines.

“I, as well as my sib­lings, hold the ide­ol­ogy that vac­cines are a pub­lic health is­sue, and a per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity to the ben­e­fit of the pop­u­la­tion, not a right you can re­voke from your chil­dren,” the teenager wrote.

Wash­ing­ton state has be­come a bat­tle­ground be­tween anti-vac­cine groups push­ing for re­laxed reg­u­la­tions and con­cerned par­ents watch­ing a measles out­break strike the Pa­cific North­west, a well-doc­u­mented anti-vac­ci­na­tion refuge.

At least 56 peo­ple in Wash­ing­ton and Ore­gon have con­tracted measles — a po­ten­tially deadly dis­ease for chil­dren — in an out­break cen­tered on Clark County, Wash., just north of Port­land, Ore. A health emer­gency has been de­clared in Clark County.

“Measles is exquisitely con­ta­gious. If you have an un­der-vac­ci­nated pop­u­la­tion, and you in­tro­duce a measles case into that pop­u­la­tion, it will take off like a wild­fire,” Clark County Pub­lic Health Di­rec­tor Alan Mel­nick said.

An­other teenager, who in Septem­ber iden­ti­fied him­self as a 15-year-old from Min­nesota, asked on Red­dit for help pars­ing state laws in an ef­fort to get im­mu­nized. Min­nesota is a state where guardians can opt out of re­quired vac­ci­na­tions if they philo­soph­i­cally ob­ject to them.

Lin­den­berger sug­gested that to em­power teenagers and get more peo­ple im­mu­nized, states should lower the age of con­sent re­quired for vac­ci­na­tions, in­stead of push­ing for stricter im­mu­niza­tion laws and drop­ping ex­emp­tions.

The ten­sion has com­pli­cated his home life. He says he re­grets in­sult­ing his par­ents in the orig­i­nal Red­dit post and urges other teenagers to be trans­par­ent and pos­i­tive with par­ents when seek­ing per­mis­sion to im­mu­nize. Ex­perts say open dia­logue is the best op­tion; other op­tions, like eman­ci­pa­tion, are ex­treme and dif­fi­cult.

But for Lin­den­berger, the stakes are high for his four younger sib­lings. His mother has in­di­cated she will not al­low his 16year-old brother to be im­mu­nized, al­though he wants to be, Lin­den­berger said.

He also has a 2-year-old sis­ter, whose age ex­poses her to nu­mer­ous in­fec­tious health risks.

“It breaks my heart that she could get measles and she’d be done,” Lin­den­berger said.

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