Teen who defied mother by getting vaccinated testifies before Congress

A teen who made headlines after getting vaccinated against his mother's wishes at age 18 shared his story in front of Congress Tuesday. High school senior Ethan Lindenberger testified before a Senate committee about his decision to defy his mom and get vaccinated.

"I grew up understanding my mother's beliefs that vaccines were dangerous," Lindenberger said at the hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education Labor, and Pensions. "She would speak openly about these views. Both online and in person she would voice her concerns and these beliefs were met with strong criticism. Over the course of my life seeds of doubts were planted and questions arose because of the backlash my mother would receive."   

As he approached high school, Lindenberger began to do his own research on the matter and quickly learned that there was no scientific evidence that backed up his mother's concerns.

"I approached my mother numerous times trying to explain that vaccines are safe and that my family should be vaccinated, approaching even with articles from the CDC explicitly claiming that ideas that vaccines cause autism and extremely dangerous consequences were incorrect," Lindenberger said. In once such instance he said his mother responded with, "That's what they want you to think."

Ethan Lindenberger, an 18-year-old student at Norwalk High School in Norwalk, Ohio, speaks before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 5, 2019. Getty

Lindenberger went public with his story after seeking information online about how to get vaccinated. In November, Lindenberger asked strangers on Reddit, an online message board, where he could go to get his shots. "My parents are kind of stupid," he wrote. "God knows how I'm still alive."

He says he understands that his mother held her views purely out of love and that he disagreed with her with love and respect. However, he emphasized the importance of getting accurate information to the public.

"To combat preventable disease outbreaks, information is in my mind the forefront of this matter," Lindenberger said at the Senate hearing.

The other speakers at the hearing — John Wiesman, Washington state's secretary of health; John G. Boyle, president and CEO of the Immune Deficiency Foundation; Saad B. Omer, Professor of Epidemiology & Pediatrics at Emory University; and Jonathan A. McCullers, MD, Pediatrician-in-Chief at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis — all spoke about the importance of scientifically accurate research and the dangers of misinformation.

The mistaken belief that vaccines are dangerous and in particular have a connection to autism can be traced back to 1998, when a doctor in the U.K. published a now discredited study claiming the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to autism. His research was found to be based on fraudulent data, the study was retracted, and the doctor lost his medical license. Decades of medical data shows no such link exists. However, the claim spread fear among parents, leading to a small but vocal faction that makes up the current anti-vax movement.

"There is absolutely no evidence at this time that vaccines cause autism," McCullers said on Tuesday.

Adding even more evidence, one of the largest studies ever done on the subject was published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine. It looked at all of the children born in Denmark over more than a decade — more than 657,000 children — and found no connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. It also looked specifically at children at high risk of developing autism, such as those with an autistic sibling, and found that the MMR vaccine does not trigger autism in that group either.

"The new study, if we needed it, puts to rest once again that there is no association between measles vaccine and autism," Dr. William Schaffner, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told CBS News.

Study finds no evidence of link between measles vaccine and autism

Lindenberger is 18 and in Ohio, where the family lives, he's old enough to get shots without his parents' permission. In December, he got vaccinated for influenza, hepatitis, tetanus and HPV. His 16-year-old brother, who is considering getting his shots, will have to wait.

In November, Lindenberger asked strangers on the online message board Reddit where he could go to get up to date with his shots. His mother, Jill Wheeler, said she was "blown away" when she found out. Lindenberger showed his parents scientific studies that showed vaccines were safe and effective, but his mother remained unconvinced.

"It was just straight up fear of him getting these immunizations and having a bad reaction ... I think a lot of people look at this as a straight, black and white answer, and I don't feel like it is," Wheeler told "CBS This Morning.

Ohio teen defies mother and gets vaccinated

She did say, however, that she is proud of her son for standing up for what he believes in.

There is no federal law mandating children be immunized but there are state laws, with some exemptions. Only seven states and Washington D.C. allow minors to get vaccinations without parental consent.

Experts say the latest outbreaks in the Pacific Northwest and New York, as well as ones in recent years such as the 2015 Disneyland outbreak, are a direct result of this anti-vaccine movement.

CBS News medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula recommends that parents who have questions about vaccine safety should visit the American Academy of Pediatrics website and HealthyChildren.org, which has information on dozens of studies debunking common myths about vaccines. She also recommends consulting with your health care provider.

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