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February 13, 2019

These teens want to get vaccinated—whether their parents like it or not

Daily Briefing

    Across the country, unvaccinated teenagers are seeking to get vaccinated against measles and other contagious diseases—whether their parents approve or not.

    Q&A: Learn how one organization achieved 98% employee flu vaccination levels

    Vaccination policies have made news lately due to a major measles outbreak that has sickened at least 56 people in Oregon and Washington state. Alan Melnick, public health director for Clarke County, Washington, explained, "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."

    Why some kids don't get vaccinated

    While most children in America receive a range of standard vaccinations early in life, state laws vary widely on when parents may opt out of vaccinating their children.

    In all 50 states, laws allow parents to exempt their children from vaccinations for medical reasons. In 47 states, parents can seek exemptions on religious grounds, and in 17 states, parents can seek exemptions for philosophical reasons. 

    Meet the teens seeking vaccinations—with or without their parents' approval

    But some teens are challenging their parents' opt-out decisions and seeking to receive vaccinations without parental consent. Recently, at least three self-described teens have turned to the website Reddit for advice on how they can get vaccinated, the Washington Post reports.

    One is Ethan Lindenberger, 18, from Ohio—a state that allows vaccination exemptions for philosophical reasons. Lindenberger wrote in a Reddit post last November that his "parents think vaccines are some kind of government scheme." He explained that "because of their beliefs [he's] never been vaccinated for anything." According to Lindenberger, his mother, Jill Wheeler, has claimed vaccines are linked to autism—a common belief held by anti-vaccination groups that has been disproven, the Post reports.

    After Lindenberger did his own research into the safety and efficacy of vaccines, he hoped he could convince his mother to vaccinate him and his younger siblings, who are currently 16, 14, 5, and 2.

    But she refused, claiming vaccines present a health risk. So Lindenberger, when he was old enough to get himself vaccinated, asked Reddit users for advice on where he could receive his vaccinations on his own.

    His post received more than 1,000 responses, including one from a Reddit user who identified as a nurse and provided Lindenberger with detailed information on how he can navigate the health care system.

    Armed with information, Lindenberger in December went to an Ohio Department of Heath office in Norwalk to receive vaccinations for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, HPV, and influenza, according to a record reviewed by the Post.

    Lindenberger isn't the only teen to turn to Reddit for vaccination advice. In another post, a self-identified underage teenager in Washington state wrote, "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 poster asked Reddit users about options available to underage minors who want to get vaccinated.

    A third Reddit user—who identified as a 15-year-old from Minnesota, which also allows vaccination exemptions for philosophical reasons—asked users for help understanding the state's laws in an effort to get vaccinated.

    According to the Post, state laws vary on whether a minor can receive vaccinations without parental consent. In several states, an individual must be 18 to receive a medical procedure without a parent's permission, "Shots" reports. 

    'It was like him spitting on me'

    When teens seek vaccinations without parental approval, it can create tension at home, the Post reports.

    Lindenberger's mother told Undark, an online science magazine, that she was upset by her son's decision. "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 said.

    Lindenberger said he regrets insulting his parents in his Reddit post and calls for teens to be transparent and positive in such circumstances.

    Similarly, experts advise having an open dialogue about the issue—especially because approaches that may allow underage teens to seek vaccination without parental approval, such as emancipation, are difficult and complicated (Morris/Simon, "Shots," NPR, 2/9; Horton, Washington Post, 2/10).

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