Ethan’s a normal kid: he goes to school, volunteers locally – and he wears a hoodie. So far, so typical. But the US teenager’s life took a surprising twist when he began to ask questions about vaccines around the time of his 18th birthday.
Suddenly Ethan was popping up on TV talk shows, testifying before the US Congress and photobombing a picture of the Queen of Belgium at the Global Vaccination Summit in Brussels.
That look you give when the queen sits right in front of you #vaccinationsummit19 #vaccineswork pic.twitter.com/aHeMvgNJHL
— Ethan J. Lindenberger (@j_lindenberger) September 12, 2019
So how did this happen?
Ethan’s incredible journey began when he began posting about vaccination on Reddit, an online discussion forum. Because his mother was against vaccination, Ethan was one of the small number of children in the developed world who had not been given his routine childhood immunisation. His mother, he believes, had been negatively influenced by conspiracy theories and false rumours she had read online. Ethan was keen to find out more.
After turning 18, he decided to follow his doctor’s advice and catch up on the vaccines he had missed. By discussing this online, he came to the attention of local media – then of national US media, before going global. He even delivered a TED talk where he told his story and will be the subject of a documentary to be broadcast next year.
‘In my household vaccines were demonised,’ he told the Global Vaccination Summit in Brussels last month. ‘The science is decided: vaccines are safe and effective.’
Ethan has become a vocal critic of anti-vaccine activists and has been using his platform to advocate for immunisation.
💉 Having representatives of their own generation is key for young people, in order to build trust in #vaccines says @j_lindenberger #VaccinesWork #YC4PV #Youth4Vaccines pic.twitter.com/aciSRNrmOu
— ThinkYoung (@ThinkYoungTW) September 13, 2019
However, some newspaper headlines and online comments about Ethan’s campaign were misleading, he says. While he disagrees with his mother’s views on immunisation, he knows her decision was based on good intentions. The media – and some advocates of vaccination – are too quick to demonise victims of vaccine misinformation, says Ethan.
‘My mom is not a bad person – she’s a loving mother,’ he says. ‘Having empathy and respect is really important. Instead of demonising individuals affected by the disease of misinformation, we should build bridges. Let’s show kindness instead of tearing people down.’
As well as speaking at the Global Vaccination Summit, Ethan took part in a panel discussion at a Think Young workshop on vaccination. He highlighted the need to hear the voices of younger people – ‘especially as a lot of the scientific community is in the older age group’.
As attentions shift towards life-course immunisation – focusing on the importance of protection throughout life, rather than just infant vaccination – voices like Ethan’s will become increasingly important. Perhaps he’ll become the Greta Thunberg of young vaccine champions!
Not only does he represent a demographic that is often overlooked (despite the impact of measles, mumps, meningitis and more on adolescents and young adults), Ethan brings a prodigious wisdom to the conversation and warns against antagonistic, polarised debate.
Vaccines Today Editor, Gary Finnegan (left) chairing a Think Young panel discussion which featured Ethan Lindenberger.