Ethan Lindenberger’s decision to become up-to-date with his vaccinations when he turned 18 against his mother’s wishes has become a story representative of teenage rebellion in 21st century America. Gone are the days of attending rock-and-roll concerts or creating a MySpace profile without your parents’ consent. In an age of anti-vaccine movements and the World Health Organization naming vaccine hesitancy and refusal one of the “biggest global health threats,” teenage rebellion means taking charge of one’s own immunization decisions.
The right for teenagers to vaccinate would mitigate the consequences of anti-vaccine movements – such as their association to a 30 percent global increase of measles cases – and improve vaccine uptake and the prevalence of immunization benefits. While vaccines prevent almost 6 million deaths annually, it is estimated that the advancement of global vaccination coverage could prevent 1.5 million more deaths, a figure teenage vaccination rights could contribute to. Coupled with enhanced herd protection, individual health, and source drying, allowing adolescents to vaccinate in spite of parental resistance is ultimately a favorable legislative path.
However, only nine states (as well as the District of Columbia) currently grant adolescents vaccination rights: California, Delaware, Minnesota, New York, and Washington D.C. permit minors the choice to get vaccinated against sexually transmitted illnesses; while Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and South Carolina take it a step further and permit minors the choice to get all vaccines.
This limited pool means the United States is not maximizing their opportunity to improve national health and address the growing pockets of unvaccinated children (a population that has quadrupled since 2001) across the country.
That’s not to say recent measures haven’t been taken. The 2019 surge of measles cases brought the issue of minor vaccination rights back to the table among some state legislative bodies. In New York, a bill allowing children older than 14 to consent to immunizations was introduced and is currently in the Senate Health Committee. In DC, a bill proposing that minors of any age be able to consent to vaccines was introduced and is also currently in committee.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that these efforts are not enough. Despite the fact that the United States has the most cases and deaths globally, despite the fact that a vaccine is one of the only ways to prevent the re-emergence of a virus that took an inordinate amount of lives, recent pollings show that a mere 50 percent of Americans are committed to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine if one is made. Granting adolescents the latitude to make their vaccination decisions can increase minor protections against COVID and ensure more Americans get the COVID-19 vaccine when it is released, especially in the wake of the technological age where teenagers have increased exposure to media coverage that demonstrates just how crucial protection against the coronavirus is.
Critics of teenage vaccination rights may argue against the urgency of the matter. Individuals may claim that these rights will disrupt family structures or that minors don’t have the maturity to make medical decisions. However, many vaccination rights laws target adolescents, not children, who are at the age to disclose confidential information with their doctor and to consent to medical decisions. And just as adults have access to vaccine information sheets, teenagers will have access to that information as well.
COVID-19 has created a world where adolescents are forced to grow up quickly, deciding between homework or a part-time job to support their family, a walk to the grocery store or protecting their immuno-compromised relatives. The threat of disrupted family structures or lack of maturity is unfounded in the face of these difficult decisions and pales in comparison to the numerous lives that could be saved if adolescents were able to get vaccinated against their parents’ wishes.
Though not a panacea, giving teenagers the right to vaccinate will contribute in some part to promoting immunity against existing diseases and slowing the curve against COVID-19 when medical advances permit. The United States must take the right step and give its teenagers their necessary medical agency.
Viktoria Wulff-Andersen is a student at Danbury High School.