The unvaccinated teen that defied his parents and got vaccinated at age 18 is continuing on his mission to stop misinformation from spreading online. Ethan Lindenberger sat down with Kyle Curtis and me to discuss his journey from unvaccinated teen to an advocate for change.
In an interview on “The Smoking Nun,” Ethan Lindenberger candidly shared his life growing up in a home with an anti-vaccine mother. According to Ethan, his mother, Jill Wheeler, believes that vaccines cause autism and kill children.
As a child, he said his mother was open with him and his siblings about her feelings about vaccines. He admitted that his oldest sister had been vaccinated. In multiple interviews, Jill expressed her about-face with vaccines happened after taking her child to the pediatrician.
During the appointment, Jill said the doctor told her the chicken-pox vaccine was given every ten years. She grew up believing vaccines were all a “one and done,” event in a child’s life. After hearing the news from the doctor, Jill began researching vaccines.
As a child, Ethan said his mother read books and used online forums to shape her views on vaccines. He admitted that he believed his mother that vaccines were dangerous as a child.
However, his point of view changed when he got a phone around age 11 or 12. At the time, he began to see information his mother shared about vaccines on social media. After seeing the information, Ethan said he began to doubt his mother’s sources.
From the time he was 13-18, Ethan said he started to learn more about vaccines. He went online and read information from the FDA and CDC. Additionally, he found studies that refuted the information shared by his mother.
After realizing his mother could be wrong, Ethan told us that he tried to talk to his mother about vaccines. Specifically, he said he presented her with information that vaccines do not cause autism sourced by the Centers for Disease Control.
When he presented his mother with the information, Ethan said his mother told him that the CDC hides information and lies. Over the years as he learned more, he realized that vaccines were not dangerous.
When Ethan turned 18 in 2018, he decided that he needed to get vaccinated. He had recently been admitted to a college in California. Ethan told his mother that a part of the admission requirement was providing his immunization records. However, Ethan says his mother told him that he could be excused from vaccines with a letter to the college.
After several conversations that went nowhere, Ethan turned to Reddit to find out how to become vaccinated. The post he made in December 2018 garnered thousands of responses. People provided him all the details that he needed to receive the vaccines.
Ethan admitted in the interview that many Redditors offered to pay for his immunizations out of pocket. Others gave tips about how he could conceal his vaccination status from his mother.
Despite the offers, Ethan told us that he didn’t want to lie to his mother. Instead, he made an appointment with his doctor to receive all the necessary vaccinations for college. When his mother learned of the appointment, he said they argued for several days. Jill was not happy and wanted him to remain vaccine free.
By January 2019, Ethan announced on Reddit that he received his vaccines. He was very excited to be vaccinated. In the interview, he expressed that he was happiest to know his vaccinations could protect vulnerable people that are unable to receive immunizations.
What happened next in the story Ethan never could have predicted when he posted to Reddit in 2018. A science magazine found his post and wrote an article on his journey. Next, NPR covered the story. Then Washington Post featured Ethan and other children that decided to vaccinate themselves against their parent’s wishes.
Soon, the media thrust Ethan and his family into the spotlight. Media outlets from around the country wanted to interview him. The United States Senate asked him to testify before a committee about vaccine misinformation online.
As Ethan Lindenberger became a household name, the rift with his mother grew. Jill began accepting interviews with conspiracy theory pushers like Vaxxed producer Del Bigtree. She met with Stop Mandatory Vaccinations’ founder Larry Cook. YouTube channels dedicated to spreading anti-vaccine propaganda interviewed her.
Homelife started to become chaotic for Ethan. Jill began teaching his youngest siblings about vaccines. She told his 5-year-old sibling that Ethan got vaccinated. Soon Ethan said his siblings were afraid to be around him believing that Ethan’s vaccines could harm them.
Unable to manage the bickering and division at home, Ethan decided to move out and live with his father. Thankfully, Ethan said his father supported his decision to vaccinate himself. Additionally, his dad helped him navigate the media circus that surrounded the family.
Nearly four months removed from receiving the vaccines, Ethan wants to help others learn about the dangers of vaccine misinformation online. He hopes to help other teens become better educated on the safety of vaccines.
Last month he gave a “Ted Talk” where he spoke about the steps he took to face the truth. Ethan said he knew that defying his mother would create a lot of tension in the family. However, he did not want to let his mother’s misguided opinion about vaccines harm his life any longer. He said after giving the talk he received a standing ovation.
In fall 2019, the United Nations has asked Ethan to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Belgium. He will speak to people around the world about the spread of vaccine misinformation online.
With so many opportunities before him, Ethan can’t wait for the future. However, he said his plans remain unchanged about his future. He will attend a Bible college in California starting in fall 2019. Ethan wants to become a pastor.
Despite the rift with his mother, Ethan was clear that he loves his mother very much. He’s not angry at her for her choice not to vaccinate.
Instead, he’s focusing his energy on the sources of the misinformation. Ethan remains hopeful that he and his mother can repair their fractured relationship in the future.
For the full interview, please watch below.
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*Katie Joy is a columnist and hosts Without A Crystal Ball on Patheos Non-Religious Channel. She writes articles on parenting, disability advocacy, debunking pseudoscience, atheism, and crimes against women and children.
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