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How Lindenberger became vaccinated in an anti-vax household, what it was like to testify and what comes next
March 9, 2019
Ethan Lindenberger, a senior at Norwalk High School in Norwalk, Ohio, is known in his hometown as the “vaccine kid.” Strangers have written him death threats, friends have called him a government pawn and his mother publicly renounced his actions as akin to “a slap in the face.”
But these attacks don’t faze 18-year-old Lindenberger, who’s been described as the David Hogg of vaccines—though he brushes off the label. After accepting an invitation from the office of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Lindenberger testified before Congress Tuesday about getting vaccinated against his mother’s wishes.
The percentage of American children who are unvaccinated has quadrupled since 2001, resulting in many cases of easily preventable diseases and frustration among public health workers. The World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019. Amidst controversy and a growing public health risk, Lindenberger’s story has become an Internet sensation.
In an interview Wednesday, Lindenberger spoke to The Black & White about his experience testifying before Congress and his journey to becoming an advocate for childhood vaccination.
For as long as Lindenberger can remember, his mother has been opposed to vaccines. She believes vaccines cause autism—despite countless studies disproving the claim—lead to brain damage and have resulted in a family friend’s stutter. Of Lindenberger’s six siblings, four did not receive childhood vaccinations.
Lindenberger didn’t receive vaccinations either—except two shots in 2002—until age 18, after online research prompted him to question his mother’s beliefs. As the founder of the debate club at his school, Lindenberger is no stranger to distinguishing between credible and biased sources. He visited sites like the CDC and the World Health Organization and concluded that the benefits of vaccines far outweigh any potential harm.
Lindenberger presented evidence from the CDC to his mother, who replied, “That’s what they want you to think.”
“My jaw hit the floor,” Lindenberger said. “It’s the CDC; what do you mean, ‘It’s what they want you to think?’ This is not a conspiracy, and they have cited information right here. It blew my mind.”
Lindenberger told some of his friends about his frustration with his mother, and one suggested he get vaccinated without parental consent since he was of age under Ohio law. Fifteen states permit children to get vaccinated without parental consent; in the rest, including Ohio, the age of consent is 18.
Ready to get vaccinated but unsure of how to proceed, Lindenberger turned to Reddit, his “go-to,” and under r/Nostupidquestions asked for advice. Lindenberger discovered he could make an appointment at the local Department of Health for little cost. The next day, he told his mother he was getting vaccinated, drove to the clinic himself and paid using family insurance. He received vaccinations for HPV 1, tetanus, influenza and hepatitis A and B.
Lindenberger updated his Reddit post after getting his shots, and it went viral. About two months later, major news outlets began picking up his story. Just when he thought the commotion was dying down, he received a text message from Sen. Alexander’s staff asking if he wanted to testify before Congress. The hearing would focus on preventing the spread of misinformation about vaccines in light of 206 cases of measles—a disease easily prevented by vaccination—confirmed last month in 11 states.
On Monday, three months after his viral Reddit post hit the internet, Lindenberger left small-town Norwalk on a plane for D.C. His dad drove him to the airport—his mom wasn’t thrilled about him testifying—and congressional staff members met him when he landed. While the government paid for his flight and hotel, friends from church chipped in for other expenses. A close friend bought him the $200 suit he wore to testify.
Lindenberger estimated that in Norwalk, which has a population of around 17,000 and leans conservative, about 10 to 20 percent of people believe vaccines do more harm than good.
“A good portion of my community was extremely supportive,” Lindenberger said. “But some people at my church were complaining. I had friends tell me that I shouldn’t be going to D.C and that I was being used as a pawn of the government.”
Upon arriving at the Capitol building, Lindenberger said he was “terrified.” Walking through the halls, he passed hundreds of people protesting vaccination. Two overflow rooms had been set up to accommodate the unusually large crowd. Almost every camera was angled toward him, and prominent national news organizations broadcasted his testimony live. But as he adjusted—and a few Senators cracked some jokes—Lindenberger slowly gained confidence. He discussed combating misinformation, the role of social media in propagating anti-vax conspiracies and how he came to realize vaccines were beneficial.
Strangers soon began to comment on Lindenberger’s social media posts with threats, and many accused him of being paid by the pharmaceutical industry. But hateful messages don’t bother Lindenberger; it just frustrates him that those commenters are misinformed. Sometimes he’ll read through angry comments to formulate a response that addresses a common thread.
“There are so many wild conspiracy theories—and that’s the problem,” Lindenberger said. “This is a one-sided conversation. There’s no debate. There’s no rebuttal. This is science versus misinformation. This is truth versus falsities. Because of that, a lot of the anti-vax community falls back on conspiracy theories. It goes to show how little evidence there is for their side.”
“Don’t use the term anti-vaxx. We’re vaccine risk aware parents”
— Ethan J. Lindenberger (@ethan_Joesph16) March 7, 2019
Vaccine hesitancy—the refusal to accept vaccination despite the availability of vaccines—endangers communities and opens the door for the re-emergence of preventable diseases, said Dr. Paul Offit, a professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
An increasing number of parents are refusing to vaccinate their children. This trend is enabled by widespread exemption laws; only three states have no religious or philosophical exemptions from school immunization requirements.
In his written testimony, Lindenberger details watching a video with his mother that claimed there hadn’t been a single death in the past 15 years due to measles. But without vaccinations controlling the virus, measles could’ve caused 21.1 million deaths—as Lindenberger was quick to point out. Data analysis by the Washington Post found that 2019 is on track to have the most confirmed cases of measles since 1992.
Yet as public health risks rise, legislators are doing little to combat it. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that at least 20 states have introduced bills this year that would make it easier to opt out of vaccinations. President Trump has expressed his own doubts about the efficacy of vaccines; leading up to his campaign, Trump repeatedly tweeted about a link between vaccines and autism.
Every year in school, Lindenberger has been called to the principal’s office and told he needs to be vaccinated. But after simply telling them that his mother doesn’t support vaccines, he’s allowed to opt out.
When Lindenberger was called into the office this past year—before he’d gotten vaccinated—he joked with school administrators that it was a good thing he was a senior: because he might not survive to see next year.
“It was the equivalent of me coming in with a rash and them saying you cannot be here, you have to be quarantined, and I just sign a paper and I’m good to go. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Lindenberger said. “It was definitely something that pinged on my radar once I started to actually consider getting vaccinated.”
Lindenberger said he supports eliminating exemptions from school vaccination requirements. He doesn’t, however, support a government mandate for vaccination—since many anti-vaxxers base their arguments on the idea that the government will attempt to restrict civilians’ freedom through such requirements.
Under a school mandate, people can still choose to home-school their kids or send them to private school without being vaccinated. But because of the financial burden that either of these options places on parents, many give in.
“If Ohio got rid of personal or religious exemptions, that basically means we would’ve been vaccinated,” Lindenberger said. “It doesn’t make any sense that the government would allow a student to go to a public setting and be put at health risk because of someone else’s false claims.”
Lindenberger wants to focus on the root of the problem: misinformation. He testified that his mother got her information through Facebook and said she often cited anecdotes as proof of her claims. To combat the emotional power of anti-vax arguments, Lindenberger believes those arguing for vaccination need to change their messaging strategies.
“The anti-vax community time and time again relies on personal anecdotes and really pulling at the heartstrings,” Lindenberger said. “It takes the opposite to convince them it’s not true. We’re not doing as good of a job explaining the terror of getting measles or meningitis or polio or tetanus.”
For Lindenberger’s family, conflict over vaccinations is personal. Although Lindenberger is often frustrated by his mother’s arguments, he said he tries to find common ground. In his testimony, Lindenberger emphasized that his mother comes from a place of misinformation, not malice. He said he always tries to be respectful and kind, even when it’s difficult.
Lindenberger’s siblings have been responsive to his arguments, but he doesn’t pressure them to disobey their mother.
“It’s basically the equivalent of coming out of the closet as atheist or gay if your parent’s a pastor or a priest,” Lindenberger said. “I would never try and beat them over the head to get vaccinated because the truth will always surface when you maintain logic and address things factually.”
Lindenberger plans to attend college next year and eventually become a pastor. He wrote a book this past February titled “10,000 Words of Silence,” where he details how churches can revitalize Christian youth groups. He decided not to publish yet in light of his testimony; some have accused him of testifying to become a famous author.
Many have taken note of Lindenberger’s story. He’s made international headlines, from Germany to Australia. Just one day after his testimony, Facebook announced it would take steps to combat the spread of anti-vaccine information.
Lindenberger intends to stay involved and keep pushing for change. In the days since his testimony, he’s been busy creating his own website and scheduling public appearances.
“It’s inspiring to see how young people can create a huge dialogue,” Lindenberger said. “If you have a situation you want to advocate for, or if you want to pursue advocacy, know that you can. Your voice should be heard.”