Congress questions Ohio teen as it looks into measles outbreak

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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) -- An Ohio teen finds himself at the center of a national debate over personal rights and national health.

Ethan Lindenberger rebelled against his parents when he turned 18 and chose to get vaccinated. The Norwalk Ohio teenager's story drew widespread media attention, and Tuesday, he told it directly to Congress.

“I went my entire life without numerous vaccines, against diseases such as measles, chicken pox, or even polio,” he said. Lindenberger told senators he's almost caught up now.

In an interview following the hearing, Lindenberger said it's a bit tense at home given the national focus on the family disagreement. He said his mom isn't thrilled he decided to testify. "But, we’ll probably make that common ground where she’ll understand it’s just important to me and I’m not trying to demonize people on her side," he said, "we're still working through it.”

The subject matter for the day's hearing -- vaccinations -- is a timely topic. Doctors across the country are diagnosing outbreaks of the once nearly-eradicated measles virus. An expert panel told lawmakers the virus’ comeback can be traced to well-meaning parents and false claims of dangerous side effects.

Dr. Jonathan McCullers. is chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and Pediatrician-in-Chief at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital. “Vaccine refusal is one of the growing public health threats of our time," he told the Senate committee, "if we continue to allow non-medical exemptions to vaccination, the rates of vaccination will continue to fall, more outbreaks will undoubtedly follow.”

McCullers and his peers on the panel highlighted extensive medical evidence of vaccine safety and argue it’s not just a personal decision. The experts said vaccinations are dangerous for some with rare diseases, and that population's health depends on everyone else getting shots.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said trying to persuade parents to vaccinate their children makes sense, but forcing them to do so is un-American. “I’m not a fan of government coercion,” he noted.

Paul said the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks -- but unlike other Senators in the hearing room, he also suggested they do come with the potential for serious health risks.

Paul's remarks drew applause from immunization skeptics in the crowd, including Dr. Janet Levatin. She's a pediatrician in Ohio, who argued the hearing didn't correct misinformation, it spread it.

In an interview following the hearing, she said the medical mainstream is underselling the risk associated with vaccines. “I believe that doctors don’t really take the time to research things for themselves,” she said when asked to explain how the consensus could differ so greatly from her conclusions.

The measles outbreaks aren’t only causing concern in Washington, DC. Several states are considering changes to their laws as well.

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