When he turned eighteen, Ethan Lindenberger sought advice about how to get vaccinated. The title of a Guardian article about him by Anna Almendrala sums up his situation: “‘God Knows How I’m Alive’: How a Teen Defied His Parents to Get Vaccinated.” As Almendrala explains, “Lindenberger was raised to believe that vaccines cause brain damage, autism, and other developmental issues. But nearing the end of high school, he had come to think differently.” His parents believed that vaccines were some type of government scheme and never had him vaccinated. “But doubt crept in at 13 or 14, after seeing the angry and aggressive responses to a post his mother had written on social media about the dangers of vaccines. People called his mother’s post propaganda and false information, Lindenberger told the Guardian. ‘Why has this thing that has been so black and white suddenly seem like there’s a lot more to it?’”
Lindenberger went to the authorities in his search for the truth. He read what sources like the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization had to say about vaccinations. He learned about the now-debunked and retracted 1998 article that linked vaccinations to autism. He learned the logic on the other side of what had been to him a black-and-white issue. There is no reputable scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. A fallacy called the post hoc fallacy—propter hoc ergo post hoc (after that because of that)—has led some parents to assume a link because signs of autism often become noticeable around the time early vaccines are scheduled. The timing does not mean that one causes the other.
One cause-effect relationship that is scientifically verifiable is the increase in the incidence of mostly eradicated diseases in areas where there are clusters of anti-vaxxers, as people like Lindenberger’s parents are called. The problem has hit the headlines recently with a measles outbreak in Washington state, where an unusually large number of children have not been vaccinated.
The anti-vaxxers’ claim that their children should not be vaccinated rests on the assumption that vaccines cause developmental delays such as autism. Their claim is invalid if the assumption is not true, and the assumption is invalid if you accept the authority of organizations such as the WHO and the CDC. Another assumption behind the claim is that vaccinations are a government scheme. This assumption needs support if the claim is to be accepted. Some parents do not like for the government to interfere with their parenting, just as some motorcycle owners do not believe the government has the right to mandate the wearing of helmets. Motorcycle riders may feel they have the right to risk their own safety by not wearing helmets. A better analogy, however, would be whether a parent has the right to decide that his or her child should not wear a helmet while riding on a motorcycle.
On the other side of the debate are parents who do not believe their children should be put at risk by unvaccinated children. We would like to think that vaccination is 100% effective, but since it is not, vaccinated children who spend time with unvaccinated sick children are still at risk. Though far fewer children who have been vaccinated will contract a disease like measles, and the illness will be less severe for them, they can still become ill.
The question that then arises is whether schools can force parents to have their children vaccinated. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are no federal vaccination laws, but all fifty states have certain vaccination requirements. All fifty states also allow medical exemptions. All but three have exemptions based on religion or philosophy (for people who have sincerely held beliefs that prohibit immunizations). A partial solution under consideration by some states is tightening these exemption policies. Those states will face the difficult job of drawing a line between medical and religious reasons for opposing immunization and philosophical ones. Is a parent’s philosophical opposition to vaccination enough to let that parent’s child put other children at risk?
Lindenberger personally hopes to become a minister and “to continue to be a voice for scientific evidence on the importance of vaccines.” Few individuals so far are taking his route and having vaccination once they come of age. Teenagers are so well informed via social media, however, that they may begin questioning at an earlier age just what their parents are doing and why. The parents of another young man introduced in Almendrala’s article stopped having him vaccinated after he had a bad reaction to an immunization at an early age and had to be hospitalized. Almendrala writes, “He’d only realized his family approached things differently at the age of 16, when he began laughing at ‘anti-vaxxer memes’ on Reddit, but soon realized that his family might be the butt of the joke. ‘I thought it was funny,’ said John. ‘Then my mom started talking about it, and I was like, ‘Oh, shit, I’m one of those kids.’” For John the situation came to a decisive point when a military scholarship for college required him to be vaccinated. His mother is now helping him catch up on his immunizations so that he can attend.
Photo credit: “Flu Vaccination Grippe” by Daniel Paquet on Flickr, 10/22/10 via a CC BY 2.0 license.