Feb. 15, 2019 -- Ethan Lindenberger of Norwalk, OH, has been thrust into an unusual position. He’s been fielding nonstop questions from peers wanting to know how he rebelled against his mother’s anti-vaccine stance to get immunized against measles and other diseases.
Since his story first appeared Feb. 6 in the nonprofit digital magazine undark.org, Lindenberger has been featured in local, national, and overseas news outlets, not to mention burning up discussion threads online.
Lindenberger has become an impromptu expert to other teens and young adults who want to follow in his footsteps.
"In terms of people who want to get vaccinated, I've probably talked to 20 or 30, privately," he says in an interview with WebMD. "On forums, probably dozens or even hundreds. I try to answer as many as I can."
Lindenberger says his mother, Jill Wheeler, has long been against vaccines. The teen first began to publicly question her decision when he posted on the popular discussion site reddit.com in November. He asked how an 18-year-old would go about getting vaccinated.
As he began to get various vaccinations, media reports about him multiplied, and so did the requests for information and guidance, questions and comments.
Lindenberger doesn’t tell other unvaccinated teens and young adults what to do. Like him, he says, everyone has to make up their own mind.
"I tell them, 'Here are your options, here is what I did, and I wish you the best of luck,' " he says. "I don't want to say I'm an inspiration, and I don't want to seem like I am trying to gloat or I am trying to be a hero."
Along with the honest questions have also come snide remarks online and peculiar inquiries. "Some asked if I was going to start an underground vaccine [effort]," he says. "People are asking if I am going to sneak people out in the middle of the night [to get vaccinated]." No to both, he tells them.
Lindenberger’s story gained attention in part because of this year’s resurgence of measles, a sometimes deadly disease once thought eliminated from the United States. Officials say a rise in anti-vaccination sentiment has helped ease measles’ return.
Among those who have contacted him is a 20-year-old woman who told him she has not had a single vaccine. And a 17-year-old told Lindenberger his parents are immigrants who don’t believe in vaccinations, saying they were so controlling, they would not let him drive anywhere without knowing exactly where he was going.
As the debate played out on Reddit, "a lot of people were saying 'What is the big deal, you are 18,' " Lindenberger says.
But while he legally had the right to control his own health care, he knew the discussion with his parents would be delicate and risky. He wanted to keep as much family peace as possible.
He also is a realist. "If I got kicked out," he says, he knows that it would be tough to live as a high school student not making a living wage.
Slow and Steady Approach
Even with that perspective, the discussions are bound to be difficult. "It's not going to be pretty in the beginning," he says. "It comes as a shock to parents when the kids have the gall to approach you and say, 'I disagree.' "
Lindenberger first started questioning his mother’s position when he realized he might need a vaccination record for college admission. He also quickly discovered he was alone among his friends in terms of immunizations.
"I just know that It something I need to do for my own wellbeing and the wellbeing of people around me. I don't want to be the reason some eradicated disease spreads again lol," Lindenberger said on his initial Reddit post.
When the initial conversations with his mom began, he recalls, she seemed scared "and a little irrational the way she was catastrophizing the situation." He says a big part of his mother's resistance is traced to a 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. The Lancet later retracted the study, and the link between vaccines and autism has been discredited by numerous studies.
Eventually, Lindenberger says, "she respected my decision. The way she put it is, 'Although we can disagree, we still love each other.' "
On Feb. 14, Lindenberger's mother posted on her Facebook page that she would be a guest on the Robert Scott Bell radio show. "I will be giving my side of the story," she posted. Bell is an advocate of natural healing. She told undark.org that she felt not vaccinating her son was "the best way to protect him and keep him safe."
Lindenberger says the family discussions have continued, and he admits that they can still be "a little heated." His parents divorced, he says, when he was about 8, and while is father is also anti-vaccine, he doesn't feel as strongly, Lindenberger says.
The 18-year-old's decision has had a ripple effect among some of his six siblings. His younger brother, 16, has "seen an overwhelming amount of evidence [for vaccinations] and is continuing to do his own research," Lindenberger says. Others are not.
Teens under 18 who decide to get vaccinated can turn to the newly updated guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics on when to get immunized and how many doses are needed for each vaccine, says H. Cody Meissner, MD, a professor of pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of pediatric infectious disease at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
People over 18 should use the CDC guidelines, he says. Meissner is a consultant on guidelines for the CDC and a consultant for the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious disease.
When teens tell him they want to question their parents' anti-vaccine stance, Meissner tells them that “the first step is to find out why the parent is opposed to vaccination."
Most unvaccinated teens who ask him about immunizing are 18, he says. For those under 18 who want to get vaccinated when their parents are against it, Meissner suggests talking first to their pediatrician and then finding out the laws in their state. Federal law does not explicitly require consent of parents for vaccinations, and state laws vary.
As of mid-February, "I have gotten five vaccines," Lindenberger says. “I am getting five more this month." He hopes to be finished with all recommended immunizations by the end of this year, he says.
He has gotten positive feedback from other teens who have read his story. One told him, "Hey, this story has helped me to talk to my parents about it."
With all this background in medical research, might Lindenberger be eyeing a career in medicine? Not a chance, he says. "I'm hoping to pursue a career in the ministry," he says, "and to become a published author." But right now, as he wrote recently on Reddit, he is looking forward to getting back to "normal" life. And he's just a little worried about his chemistry grade.