The recent measles outbreak has caused some teenagers to seek advice on how to get vaccinated against a variety of diseases.
Can a teenager get a vaccine without their parents’ consent? The legalities of it vary from state to state, but some teens are trying nonetheless.
Such is the case of Ethan Lindenberger, an unvaccinated 18-year-old who kicked off a Reddit thread asking for advice on obtaining vaccines.
That thread received more than 1,200 responses from the community. Lindenberger joins a pair of other self-described teenagers — including those under the age of 18 — on Reddit looking for advice, the Washington Post reports.
Call it an act of teenage rebellion, but one with health-conscious consequences.
The anti-vaccination movement has been back in the news as more than 100 measles cases, including more than 50 in Washington state, have been reported in the United States.
The rise of cases of vaccine-preventable diseases is almost certainly tied to anti-vaccine activism, experts say.
While not side effect-free — no medicine is — vaccines are overwhelmingly safe.
And, experts say, any vaccination risks far outstrip the consequences of contracting the viruses vaccines are meant to protect against.
So why do parents opt out of vaccinating their kids in the first place?
The modern anti-vaccination movement was largely sparked from a discredited study published in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield linking the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine to autism. It was later discovered Wakefield , and he was stripped of his medical license.
Beyond that study, there are a trove of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories online, and the ease of access and exposure to these theories may increase parents’ likelihood to not vaccinate, a 2014 study in the concluded.
But the real reason for anti-vaccination sentiment may have less to do with our times than human nature, according to Dr. John D. Lantos, director of pediatric bioethics at Children’s Mercy Kansas City.
“There’s a trend that’s been noticed that when immunization rates are higher there aren’t as many diseases that they prevent and people get complacent,” Lantos told Healthline.
“When the polio vaccine came out in the ’50s, everyone knew someone who had polio and were terrified of polio, so there wasn’t a lot of refusal. In general, if people see the disease, they want the vaccine. If they don’t see it, [they think] it’s not necessary,” Lantos explained.
But much like with adults, seeing these preventable diseases spring up could be spurring teens to act in defiance, says Dr. David Beyda, chair of the department of bioethics and medical humanism at the University of Arizona College of Medicine at Phoenix.
“Teens are wanting to protect themselves and are becoming their ‘own self’ when it comes to their autonomy, that is — self-directed care,” Beyda told Healthline.
One likely way teens could get vaccines without parental consent is medical concerns for sexually transmitted diseases, Lantos said. That includes diseases such as HPV but also arguably vaccines for hepatitis.
These are the diseases most likely to affect teenagers anyway. There isn’t much need for a teenager to get vaccinated for whooping cough, he pointed out.
“For as much as people joke that teenagers think they know everything, it seems rare to find one that actually believes that their own internet research is superior to the credentials of medical professionals and scientific researchers,” Caroline Conway, an attorney and legal expert in New York, told Healthline. “Maybe it’s because they are still at an age where they are expected to treat adults with credentials such as education and professional experience as worthy of respect.”
But even if teens want to buck their elders and get vaccinated, whether or not they’re able to depends largely on where they live and how old they are.
“Generally, an individual is legally entitled to a confidential doctor’s appointment from age 16 without receiving parental consent and must be over 18 to give their own consent to receive a vaccination,” David Reischer, attorney and chief executive officer at LegalAdvice.com, told Healthline
In 18 states, however, “the law requires only that the individual ‘is mature enough to understand and appreciate the consequences of their decision,’” he said.
Too few people getting vaccinated is a real concern.
Without herd immunity — where a large enough percentage of a population is immunized enough so that it protects the whole group — at-risk populations become vulnerable (including children too young to receive vaccines) and outbreaks like the ones in Washington are prone to occur.
But whether anti-vaccination trends are more rampant now than historically is less clear.
Between 1998 and 2016, vaccination rates have generally risen, and even when they occasionally fall from year to year, it’s usually less than a percentage point, data from the .
Higher would still be better, but the overall trend line is more positive than the news might indicate.
Instead, we should be aware of the geographies of various anti-vaccination movements, Lantos suggested.
“The geographic clustering is clear,” he said “When there’s a strong anti-vaccination movement in a community, then there’s a lot of peer pressure.”
“The anti-vaccination movement is powered by emotions and rhetoric,” he said. “There are some anti-vaccinators who are now beginning to seek guidance of what to do with the measles outbreak. They are posting requests for guidance on how to protect their children from measles.
“The response has been: ‘Get vaccinated.’”