Ethan Lindenberger made headlines last month for choosing to get vaccinated against his mother’s wishes. On Tuesday, the 18-year-old testified before the Senate health committee about his experience growing up in an anti-vaccine household and the dangers of misinformation.
“I grew up understanding my mother’s beliefs that vaccines are dangerous, and she would speak openly about these views,” Lindenberger said.
“Both online and in person she would voice her concerns, and these beliefs were met with strong criticism,” he added. “Over the course of my life, seeds of doubt were planted and questions arose because of the backlash my mother would receive.”
At one point, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) noted the teen’s frequent reference to the internet.
“Does your mother get most of her information online?” Isakson asked.
“Mainly Facebook,” Lindenberger replied.
Asked where he looked for information on vaccines, the teen said: “Not Facebook. From the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the World Health Organization, scientific journals … I try my best also to look at accredited sources.”
The Senate health committee’s hearing follows several measles outbreaks in the U.S. and abroad, including one last month that prompted the governor of Washington to declare a state of emergency.
Lindenberger was joined by several other witnesses, including John Wiesman, Washington state’s secretary of health, and John Boyle, president and CEO of the Immune Deficiency Foundation, which advocates for people who cannot be vaccinated themselves and rely on widespread vaccination of others to shield them from exposure to certain infectious diseases.
In the opening moments of the hearing, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) attempted to frame vaccination as an issue not of public health but of personal liberty.
“As we contemplate forcing parents to choose this or that vaccine, I think it’s important to remember that force is not consistent with the American story, nor is force consistent with the liberty our forefathers sought when they came to America,” said Paul, who is an eye doctor.
The senator added that he is vaccinated and his children are vaccinated, but his remarks granted credence to anti-vaccine advocates by highlighting the potential dangers of immunization.
“It is wrong to say that there are no risks to vaccines,” Paul said. “Even the government admits that children are sometimes injured by vaccines.”
The CDC recommends that children be vaccinated for a number of diseases, including measles, hepatitis B, polio and tetanus. The agency also acknowledges that injuries can happen after getting vaccinated ― often due to fainting.
One common anti-vaccine belief relates to the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella. Anti-vaxxers fear that it also increases the risk of autism. This idea stems from a debunked 1998 study based on just 12 patients and conducted by a doctor later found to have falsified data.
A decadelong study of 657,461 children, conducted by researchers in Denmark and published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, offers more evidence that the MMR vaccine does not increase children’s risk of autism, even when those children are considered at high risk for the developmental disorder.
The rise of the anti-vaccine movement has contributed to a resurgence of measles after it was basically eradicated from the U.S. in 2000. According to the CDC, the recent outbreaks were linked to unvaccinated people who traveled to countries where large measles outbreaks were occurring and then returned to the U.S. infected.
The spread of measles can also go the other way, as in the recent case of an infected French child who spread the disease to Costa Rica while vacationing with his parents.