Teens with anti-vax parents seek out Reddit's help to get secretly vaccinated

Fear of disease has driven some teenagers and young adults to turn to the internet for advice

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published February 3, 2019 2:00PM (EST)


Reddit, the vast online forum and link aggregator, is a digital haven for advice, self-help, and general discussion; for almost any subculture or topic you want to discuss, you can find a Reddit community. Now, as the anti-vaccination movement has driven more parents to exempt their children from vaccines, some teenagers are turning to online forums like Reddit to find advice on how to get vaccinated, against their parents’ wishes.

Laura C., an 18-year-old from Colorado who has posted on Reddit about her situation, told Salon over email she has not been vaccinated since she was two. She said her mom calls herself an anti-vaxxer.

“I haven't had my boosters,” she said. “My mom always talked about how I was ‘too special’ for shots because of my autism,” adding that she “stopped with the first MMR.”

MMR refers to a vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella, a standard-issue vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children should get two doses of the vaccine; the first between 12 and 15 months of age, and the second between four and six years of age.

The normalization of the anti-vaccination movement is relatively recent, and has been wreaking havoc on public health. The CDC found that the number of two-year-olds who had not received vaccinations grew to 1.3 percent for those born in 2015; comparatively, for those who were born in 2011, the percentage was at 0.9. Though that gap seems small, the relationship between unvaccinated people and disease is not linear; rather, there is a tipping point that confers "herd immunity," meaning that enough people are vaccinated that the disease will not spread, despite the few unvaccinated.

The World Health Organization named “vaccine hesitancy” one of the top threats to public health to prioritize in 2019. Until about twenty years ago, just about everyone in the United States was automatically vaccinated from youth, by virtue of state laws mandating it. However, American children in all 50 states are allowed a medical exemption if the child has a specific medical condition, and all but three states in the U.S. offer non-medical exemptions for religious reasons. Eighteen states allow philosophical exemptions for those who object to immunizations due to personal or moral beliefs — and it is these exemptions that have been the root of a loophole allowing parents who don’t believe in vaccinations to keep their children from getting them.

Laura, who did not want her full name to be published, said she felt “left out” when she read other students’ transcripts for school, and that she still needs a variety of shots before she can attend college, which has led her to seek out her own options.

“I plan to get Hepatitis A and B, MMR, the flu, HPV, TDaP [tetanus, diptheria and pertussis] , and many other immunizations that I was ‘exempt’ from,” she said, noting the rise in measles has made her “seriously anxious.”

In 2000, 37 years after measles vaccination programs began, national health experts declared that the disease had been eliminated in the United States. Yet in 2018, the second-greatest number of annual cases were reported since the disease was declared "eliminated" 18 years earlier. Many public health experts have attributed that rise to the increasing popularity of the anti-vaccination movement. A county near Portland, Oregon, is the latest to experience an outbreak, and it is likely not a coincidence that this occurred in a county that has seen a decrease in child vaccination rates. From 2014 to 2015, a measles outbreak in California spread throughout eight states. Of the California residents who had measles, 45 percent were unvaccinated.

A 23-year-old in Canada, who also requested to remain anonymous, told Salon via email she never got vaccinations as a child.

“I was a home birth and my mom took me to homeopathic and naturopathic doctors who she knew,” the 23-year-old told Salon. “I found out [I wasn’t vaccinated] when it was time to get our shots at school, they sent us home forms for our parents to fill out and my mom said that I had an exception and told me not to get any shots.”

Around the age of 13, the Canadian started scouring the internet to figure out how to get vaccinated herself. Eventually, she found a youth clinic that provided free sexual health services to youth.

“I talked to one of the doctors there about lots of different things and vaccines came up,” the 23-year-old explained. “We started talking and she pointed me towards Wikipedia and WebMD and encouraged me to look into it myself and see what I thought about vaccines. I had also never been allowed to take antibiotics, and at the time I had strep throat so I looked those up on Wikipedia as well.”

After this research, the 23-year-old came to believe that misinformation has driven the mother’s decision. Eventually, she went to a vaccine clinic.

“I asked for everything I could get and then was given a booster appointment card. Since then, I've gotten all my boosters and get a yearly flu shot,” she explained. “I do wish my parents has gotten me vaccinated, and I'm glad I was able to get myself vaccinated.”

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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