Ethan Lindenberger — the 18-year-old who famously got vaccinated against his mother’s wishes — is in New York City today to speak at a high-level United Nations event on combating vaccine misinformation.
But the recent high school graduate’s planned appearance has sparked an onslaught of harassment by anti-vaccination individuals, who have flooded the phone lines of UNICEF, which is hosting the event.
The Norwalk, Ohio teen — whose mother is staunchly against vaccinations — posted on Reddit in November 2017 asking for advice on how to get up to speed on his immunizations. He ended up getting vaccinated against his mother’s wishes — and in the process, quickly gained prominence as a critic of vaccine misinformation.
In March, Lindenberger testified before the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions about the threat of false claims being made about vaccines online. He told lawmakers that most of his mother’s flawed information had come from Facebook, which has come under fire for not doing enough to curb health-related inaccuracies on its site.
“I believe she has been so taken advantage of with misinformation online,” he said.
Vaccines are public health’s best tool for preventing disease – and the only tool for eradicating it. Congratulations to Ethan Lindenberger for making health decisions based on data. https://t.co/63RShZDmDz
— Dr. Robert R. Redfield (@CDCDirector) February 14, 2019
His outspoken advocacy for vaccines has earned him praise from medical professionals and the public health community. But it has also drawn the ire of anti-vaccine individuals, some of whom have harassed him with abusive comments and messages on social media platforms. Some have accused him of being in “Big Pharma’s pocket,” and others have leveled death threats, Lindenberger said. That’s why he wasn’t surprised by the phone calls that inundated the UNICEF office this week — or the hostile nature of some of those calls, he said.
“That’s happened to me for months,” he said. When he testified before the Senate, anti-vaccine protestors rallied outside. Some cornered him by the elevators, he said, and he had to be escorted by Capitol police.
Even in his own hometown, Lindenberger has faced fierce criticism.
“I have friends and family, people who go to my church, who can’t stand what I’m doing,” he said. “When something becomes this polarizing, it becomes very toxic,” he added.
Lindenberger said he tries to separate himself from the attacks that come his way. And though his social media profiles are sometimes overwhelmed with anti-vaccine comments, he tries to engage when he can and sees an opportunity to share accurate information.
“People can be misinformed and so driven and radicalized that it’s almost more sad than it is offensive,” Lindenberger said. “I try to be as respectful of that than I can,” he added.
His speech at the U.N. today comes as the country’s measles count moves toward a quarter-century high. There have been 1,077 cases so far in 2019, according to the CDC.
Lindenberger plans to talk about how social media sites allow dangerous misinformation about vaccines to spread. He’ll also talk about how online anti-vaccine communities can “militarize” to bombard his posts and those of other vaccine advocates with a deluge of hostile comments. Also speaking at the event: Jason Hirsh, head of Facebook’s health policy team, and Gillian Steelfisher, who studies vaccine behaviors and attitudes.
And while Lindenberger continues to champion vaccines and accurate information about them, his mom’s views haven’t changed, he said.
“She believes what I’m doing is dangerous, scary, and misinformed,” he said.