CLEVELAND, Ohio — Ethan Lindenberger has traveled across the nation and even to other countries promoting the importance of getting vaccinated. He wasn’t able to get vaccinated himself until he turned 18.
“My mom is an anti-vaxxer and believes vaccines cause autism and brain damage and don’t benefit the health and safety of anybody," Lindenberger said. "So because of those beliefs, I grew up without any vaccines somebody would normally receive. And once I was 18 and wanted to get vaccinated, I went to the internet and asked for some information on how to do that, leading to a really explosive vital campaign around vaccines.”
Within a year, he got caught up on all his vaccines. As a kid, he says he didn’t know much about vaccines and didn’t really have a desire to get vaccinated until he was 16.
“Schools today teach you how to do your research online," Lindenberger said. "What a verified source is, what a peer-reviewed study is, and I knew how to look for good information.”
Now, he’s very passionate about science and is using his experience to encourage others to get vaccinated. Dr. Isaac Kirstein is the Dean of the Cleveland campus for Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“People don’t realize that measles can cause death," Dr. Kirstein said. "None of us have even met somebody who has gotten measles because the vaccine is so effective. Other diseases – mumps – people don’t even know what these diseases do anymore because we’ve all been vaccinated.”
Dr. Kirstein says there are no major risks to vaccinations, only the slight possibility of an allergic reaction like how some people are allergic to different foods.
“Right now, there are no vaccines that are approved that cause autism," Dr. Kirstein said. "None. And we know that. We have a lot of science and post-vaccination monitoring to prove it.”
He says vaccines are far safer than getting the infection itself. When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Kirstein says that even though we got the vaccine out in a record amount of time to a record number of people, no shortcuts were ever taken. In fact, he says scientists have been working on the messenger RNA vaccine method for at least a decade.
“One of the common misconceptions in the people Ethan’s age is because you’re young and healthy, that 'the COVID virus really can’t impact you that strongly so I don’t really need to take the vaccine,’" Dr. Kirstein said, "But the truth is, we’re seeing that even in young, healthy people who do catch COVID, up to 10, 20, maybe even 30% of them have these long-haul symptoms, these chronic symptoms that occur that most likely you’ll never get if you take the vaccines. So I’m really happy to hear that Ethan got vaccinated and took the steps to protect him and other people that he gets in contact with.”
There’s proof that vaccines work. He says all three approved COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. are nearly 100% effective at preventing people from being put in a hospital.
“The patients who are in the hospitals right now, the patients who are on ventilators right now are almost all uniformly unvaccinated," Dr. Kirstein said. "We are not seeing any significant number of unvaccinated people being admitted into the hospital.”
Lindenberger is now 20 years old. He says his advocacy is part of a larger effort to change the age for when kids no longer need parental consent to get vaccinated. He also wants to stop streams of misinformation.
“There’s been a lot of change over the past couple of years towards how social media handles misinformation about vaccines," Lindenberger said. "So Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google all have changed their approach to anti-vax content. GoFundMe took on anti-vax campaigns, Amazon removed misinformed books, the list goes on.”
For kids facing a similar situation at home, he has some advice.
“Getting yourself educated is the number one priority," Lindenberger said. "And if you become of age to get vaccinated, then please pursue that as carefully as you can. Because you don’t want to sever family ties and make people upset, but you still need to make sure you’re protected against these diseases.”
Dr. Kirstein notes it’s OK for people to be hesitant about vaccines. He says we should listen to those people and give them helpful resources to address their concerns.
“People don’t want to be lectured to, and they don’t want to be told that they’re absolutely wrong, but when you do take the time to hear their concerns and validate their concerns and provide them with data, that’s actually a method that we know will work the best,” Dr. Kirstein said.
Lindenberger says the relationship with his mother has been strained because she still believes he’s promoting something that’s harmful. However, he says his intentions are pure, and he has hope his mother will see that someday.
“I just try and maintain that she’s a loving mother, and she’s misinformed not malicious in her intentions,” Lindenberger said.