Measles, a disease all-but-eliminated in the United States and contained around the world, is once again becoming a global threat due to conspiracy theories that claim that vaccines cause harm. Ohio teen Ethan Lindenberger, who grew up in an anti-vaxxer family, got himself vaccinated as soon as he turned 18, and now he’s going to testify before Congress.
Lindenberger posted a video Saturday night announcing he’d been invited to speak at a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions this week entitled: “Vaccines Save Lives: What Is Driving Preventable Disease Outbreaks?”
The high school student explained that he’d be speaking on topics like “preventable diseases spreading, outbreaks of preventable diseases, as well as addressing misinformation that causes these outbreaks.”
One of the other panelists Tuesday will be John Wiesman, Secretary of Health for the state of Washington, which is facing one of the largest measles outbreaks in the country. It is hardly alone, however, with states like Michigan, Oregon, and Illinois also facing outbreaks. An overwhelming majority of the new measles cases have been among people who were not vaccinated for the illness.
The United Nations Children’s Fun released a new report Friday detailing a spike in measles cases around the globe in the past year, with significant increases in Ukraine, Brazil, Madagascar, Yemen, and the Philippines. The report blames “poor health infrastructure, civil strife, low community awareness, complacency and vaccine hesitancy.”
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore was less subtle in her comments. “Almost all of these cases are preventable, and yet children are getting infected even in places where there is simply no excuse,” she said in a statement accompanying the report. “Measles may be the disease, but, all too often, the real infection is misinformation, mistrust and complacency. We must do more to accurately inform every parent, to help us safely vaccinate every child.”
The report calls on governments, health care providers, and parents to understand that “vaccines are safe and effective and can save a child’s life.”
Unfortunately, some governments are going in the exact opposite direction. Arizona’s legislature, for example, has recently passed bills that would give families a religious exemption from having their children vaccinated. One of the bills’ most vocal supporters, state Rep. Kelly Townsend (R) is convinced that “something is in those vaccines” that harmed her own child and she refuses to believe any science that tells her otherwise. Gov. Dough Ducey (R) said this week he would likely veto the bills, describing himself as “pro-vaccination” and “anti-measles.”
But Lindenberger’s own story speaks to how entrenched these anti-vaxxer conspiracy theory beliefs can be. When he confronted his mother with his own research about how vaccines are both effective and not harmful, she replied, “That’s what they want you to think.”
In an interview with Undark Magazine, she called her son’s decision to get vaccinated “a slap in the face” and compared it to him spitting on her.
And on Tuesday, he’s going to testify before Congress about why he nevertheless thought it important.