Teen Fights Against Anti-Vax Misinformation


Georgia Morris, Co-Editor

In December of 2018, eighteen-year-old high school senior Ethan Lindenberger got vaccinated against the wishes of his anti-vax mother. He received various shots, including hepatitis A, hepatitis B, influenza, and HPV at his local health department. Prior to this, Lindenberger had already gained online attention from a discussion on Reddit where he was asking how to get vaccinated despite the opposition of his “kinda stupid parents.” Now, he has been invited to speak alongside state health officials and vaccine experts at a Senate committee meeting focused on the causes of outbreaks of preventable diseases.

For all of his childhood, Lindenberger went without common vaccinations like measles or chickenpox. His mother opted him out every year when his school approached him, telling him that he needed to receive his vaccinations. While most states only allow religious exemptions from vaccinations, seventeen states allow parents to opt their children out of vaccinations for personal reasons.

Parents who are anti-vaccination have recently been more heavily scrutinized as outbreaks of preventable diseases have been making the news. For example, the CDC has confirmed 206 cases of measles in 11 states in January and February of this year. Easily preventable diseases like the measles can lead to death in extreme cases. Outbreaks like these are what have prompted the government to take action against the spread of preventable diseases.

Lindenberger spoke to the committee about his own personal experience in an anti-vax household, saying that his mother received most of her misinformation about vaccines from social media platforms, specifically Facebook. He received his own information and knowledge about the subject from reputable sources like the CDC, the World Health Organization, and scientific journals. Lindenberger told the committee that as he “approached high school and began to critically think for [him]self, [he] saw that the information in defense of vaccines outweighed the concerns heavily.” He called his mother a victim of “deeply rooted misinformation” online and recognized that parents who question vaccines are acting out of concern, not malice. However, he does blame anti-vax groups who spread misinformation for acting selfishly and dangerously and claims that they should be the concern of American people.

Platforms have recently taken steps to prevent anti-vax misinformation from spreading on their networks as they have come under fire. Facebook is the main platform to be chastised for allowing misinformation on their website since this is where most anti-vax parents seem to receive their information. The company told the Washington Post that the company has “taken steps to reduce the distribution of health-related misinformation on Facebook,” but there is still more to do. All health articles on the website are eligible for fact-checking, and those that are deemed false will rank lower in people’s feeds than truthful articles. In September, Pinterest began barring searches about vaccines on their website, with this move becoming public last month. Youtube is also working to disincentivize creators from spreading misinformation by disallowing anti-vaccine videos from being monetized with ads.

Lindenberger’s mother, Jill Wheeler, has said that she doesn’t agree with anything that her son has said in committee, but is very proud of him for his appearance. “They’ve made him the poster child for the pharmaceutical industry,” she told the Associated Press.