This article was written by Linda Stewart
There is a danger that is pervasive across our country. It’s called misinformation, or “fake news.” While most of us associate this with the political arena, the danger is playing out as a life or death situation for some unvaccinated children and adults.
Most children are vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) shortly after their first birthday, with a booster shot just before starting kindergarten. The vaccines have proven very successful in eliminating these diseases in the U.S., and the rare case is generally isolated as everyone around them is already vaccinated. However, in the 1960s, a group in the United Kingdom formed against the Diphtheria, Tetanus and Pertussis (DTP) vaccine, and in the late 1990s a similar opposition started against the MMR vaccine. While the British doctor who first published his claims about a link between the MMR vaccine and autism was later found to be guilty of fraud (he admitted he was paid to publish this even though his data did not show any link), the document is still pointed to as valid scientific research.
Caught in the middle of the vaccination debate are the children. The following is one young man’s story and the local connection in a Twin Cities community.
A stirring message was delivered to a hearing of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee by a young man named Ethan Lindenberger on March 5. (See Ethan’s full at help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Lindenberger.pdf.) The hearing was to discuss the outbreaks of preventable diseases.
Ethan only received his vaccinations in 2018 after turning 18 and choosing the vaccinations as an adult. Ethan’s mother has been opposed to vaccinating her children for decades and was offended by Ethan’s decision. As reported in the Washington Post on March 5, 2019, “His mother Jill Wheeler told Undark, an online science magazine that first reported Lindenberger’s story, that her son’s decision was “like him spitting on me, saying ‘You don’t know anything, I don’t trust you with anything.’”
However, Ethan has shared that he had multiple conversations with his mother as his knowledge and curiosity expanded. He was frustrated that with each debate, his mother’s search to counter his information was usually a trip to the same websites and sources that have found notoriety in the world of anti-vaxxers. She was not willing to look at any information with a pro-vaccine view.
Ethan’s testimony shows a maturity and a respect for his mother, in spite of her harsh words. He believes that the vast majority of “anti-vaxxer” parents are not acting out of disregard for their children’s well-being. In fact, he feels that there are organizations that are preying on these parents’ love and concern for their children to spread a message that is contradicted by scientific fact. These anti-vaccination organizations generate a fear that is so intimidating that the parents are made to believe that the scientific facts are a conspiracy to discredit the anti-vaccination message.
Closer to our Minneapolis community, the Somali-American community dealt with the consequences of not vaccinating children in 2017, when 75 cases of measles were reported. Many of the children are not vaccinated by their parents due to the same autism misinformation that Ethan spoke of. (An Amish community in Ohio also experienced a large outbreak in 2014 where the common practice was to not vaccinate children.)
The tragedy is that when one case of measles is introduced into a tight-knit community, the highly contagious disease can be spread to others before the illness is identified. The red spots that typically alert caretakers to measles do not appear for 3-5 days after the illness starts, and in the interim, the infected child may appear to have a common cold, coughing and/or sneezing around other children, which will introduce the measles infection to more families.
In 2018, one year after the Twin Cities measles outbreak, the vaccination rate within the Somali-American community has increased from 42 to 58 percent. [Learn more at mprnews.org/story/2018/08/24/measles-vaccinated-somali-american-children-up-more-outbreak]. Rather than take on the misinformation about vaccinations causing autism directly with this community, the Minnesota Health Department is discussing childhood development overall and easing into the vaccination discussions are part of a larger good health initiative.
In Ethan Lindenberger’s words, “This is important to understand, as learning to find credible research and information is fundamental to finding truth in a world of misleading facts and false views.” Consider this next time you find yourself arguing with your children, parents, neighbors, etc. Take the time to learn your sources and understand the emotions of those who disagree with you. Don’t judge – and keep on learning.