The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unvaccinated teens are fact-checking their parents — and trying to get shots on their own

Ethan Lindenberger, 18, of Norwalk, Ohio, decided to get vaccinated against his mother's wishes. He turned to Reddit for answers. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

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 disease 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 fact-checking 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.

Online science magazine Undark first reported Lindenberger’s story.

The outbreak has been concentrated in Clark County, Wash., near Portland, Ore., a known anti-vaccination hotspot. (Video: Reuters)

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

At least three self-described teenagers from different states recently told 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. “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.

‘It will take off like a wildfire’: The unique dangers of the Washington state measles outbreak

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

Different state laws affect how minors can pursue their own 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. All but three states allow the exemption on religious grounds. (All 50 allow opt-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 years old, 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 pursue vaccinations.

In Washington, 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 measles outbreak draws crowd to hearing on vaccine law

Washington 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 in 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 himself 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 16-year-old brother to be immunized, although he wants to be, he 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.

Read more:

Vape pen kills man after exploding in his mouth

Administration seeks to fund religious foster-care groups that reject LGBTQ parents