The debate over vaccination seems unusual and unimportant for most people. After all, the majority of Americans get vaccinated and view them as routine shots administered by a trusted doctor. It is just what you do. No side effects, no reactions and no real issue. But some people find this discussion to be much more personal.
That’s the case for me. I grew up in a home with an anti-vaxx mother who believes that vaccines caused brain damage and autism, and do not contribute to the health and safety of a society. The only two shots I ever received were for tetanus and hepatitis B when I was two months old. After that, nothing. For 16 years I didn’t receive a single shot, and all my life I’ve never been vaccinated against diseases like measles, chicken pox or even polio.
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Growing up, I knew I wasn’t vaccinated, and my mom spoke openly about her beliefs. She stressed the danger of vaccines on social media, to friends and to my family. I didn’t really understand what a vaccine was, why it was so important and why this was even a big deal. At the beginning of each school year, I’d be pulled out of class and brought to the principal's office. The school staff would tell me I haven't received any of the necessary shots to attend school. But the same thing occurred each time, my mom would exempt me from the shots and nothing would happen.
Taking a step for my own health
In a way, I was a health concern in my school. Although people who don't vaccinate their children make up only a relatively small group, they can cause major consequences. People who, for legitimate health or age reasons, cannot receive vaccines are at a higher risk of contracting a preventable disease when people voluntarily don't vaccinate.
Eventually, I began to do my own research, and we had years worth of arguments over the statistics and evidence about vaccinations, but that didn’t change anything. At one point, I showed my mom an article by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that explained how vaccines in no way cause autism. She dismissed it.
Eventually, I turned 18. Laws about what medical treatments minors can receive without parental consent vary state by state. In Ohio, where I live, I had to wait until I became a legal adult to make the decision to receive immunizations.
A huge factor in taking the step to ensure my health was the message board website Reddit. Last November, I asked Reddit users for advice about what immunizations to ask for and how to go about getting them from a doctor. After my post received more than 1,000 comments, I made an appointment with my family physician. My mother was hurt and angry that I wanted to speak to a doctor and get these shots, despite how strongly she felt. But I went through with it anyway. In December, I received shots for hepatitis B, hepatitis A, tetanus, influenza and HPV 1.
Vaccinate for the vulnerable
The news attention that followed was wild. While I was growing up, all I did was basic research and slowly found myself in opposition to my mother's opinions. I took responsibility and did something every person should do. It wasn’t special in any way.
However, my story and this conversation is still important — not because of my specific circumstances, but because of its implications. Vaccines protect the health and safety of not only yourself but also other people. Certain individuals are what’s known as “immunocompromised” or “immunodeficient.” These people have extremely weak immune systems for one reason or another and cannot receive a vaccine even if they wanted to. Their body is so weak, it cannot fight the disease within an immunization, and if they contracted that disease in its strongest form, the consequences could be deadly. Babies, toddlers and the elderly are also at a higher risk for sickness or even death from the numerous preventable diseases we can vaccinate against.
This was the biggest reason I got vaccinated despite the opposition. Vaccination is not important because you might avoid the inconvenience of chicken pox. It’s important because someone could die if you don't vaccinate. The risk of vaccines are so minor and the benefit is so major that each individual, even if you're a teenager, has a personal responsibility to be informed and get your shots.
Ethan Lindenberger is a high school student in in Norwalk, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @ethan_joesph16.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Growing up unvaccinated: My anti-vaxx mother made me a health risk for the whole community