Teen advocate for vaccines tell UN of harassment and abuse

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Ethan Lindenberger – the 18-year-old who famously got vaccinated against his mother’s wishes – has spoken in New York City at a high-level United Nations (UN) event on combating vaccine misinformation. But, says a Stat News report, 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 immunisations. He ended up getting vaccinated against his mother’s wishes – and in the process, quickly gained prominence as a critic of vaccine misinformation.

The report says in March, Lindenberger testified before the Senate committee on health, education, labour 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.

The report says 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 levelled death threats, Lindenberger said. That’s why he wasn’t surprised by the recent phone calls that inundated the UNICEF office – 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.

The report says 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 radicalised 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.

The report says his speech at the UN came 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 US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Lindenberger spoke about how social media sites allow dangerous misinformation about vaccines to spread. He also talked about how online anti-vaccine communities can “militarise” 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 behaviours 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.

Stat News report

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