Eighteen-year-old Louisiana native Kawliga had mentally prepared himself to talk to his parents throughout their entire trip to Biloxi, Mississippi. Finally, on the last day, he let it out. “I’m about to start my senior year of high school, and I’m getting more nervous as it approaches that I’m about to go to university and be surrounded by lots and lots of people,” he started out. Before his parents could interrupt, he continued. “Most of the other people will be vaccinated, and I don’t want to be put behind because I’m not.”
This fall Kawliga will start at Northwestern State University of Louisiana (NSU). Per state law, admission is dependent on proof of immunizations for a slew of contagious diseases, including the omnipresent mumps. And while requirements vary by state and university, most colleges mandate vaccinations, though religious exemption is a common way to opt out.
At NSU, Kawliga will be on a pre-nursing track in hopes of beginning a neonatal nurse practitioner. He chose the profession in large part because he grew up unvaccinated. Kawliga’s parents stopped his immunizations around the time he was 4 years old to appease his adamantly anti-vaxx grandparents. It wasn’t until middle school, after several localized measles outbreaks, that he realized he was the only unvaccinated kid in class. At the time, he thought, There has to be a reason that vaccination is so common. It can’t be as bad as my parents make it out to be.
As he began to independently research vaccines, he quickly came across studies proving how being unvaccinated puts others at risk for catching diseases. He says that his parents were more or less unaware of this fact. “I don’t have any sort of hate toward them; it’s just kind of frustrating that they don’t see the bigger picture,” he explains. By becoming an neonatal nurse, he’s doing what he says they never did — further the crusade toward vaccination.
Malik, a 17-year-old high school senior in British Columbia, is in a similar situation. He will major in general science this fall at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. For a class project two years ago, he was tasked with researching the false correlation between vaccines and autism. Though Malik knew his parents stopped vaccinating him at 2 years old, he never knew that meant he posed a health risk. He also didn’t realize questioning his mother on his vaccination status would spur an ongoing dispute. “Vaccinations were one of the first things I actively took a role against her on,” he explains. “Her anti-science inspired me to go into science.”
The path to self-vaccination requires unwavering assurance. In particular, it means going up against your parents even when you’re still pretty much completely dependent upon them. “I will pay out-of-pocket for all of this if it comes to that,” Kawliga told his. They relented, and his mother even took him to the doctor’s office last August so he could receive vaccinations for hepatitis, measles and meningitis.
Malik wasn’t so fortunate and had to go it alone. British Columbia’s Infant Act allows children under the age of 19 to consent for medical treatments as long as a health-care professional believes it’s in their best interest and they fully understand the risks. The Canadian province also routinely administers vaccinations for meningitis and whooping cough (among other diseases) to most high school freshman. But three years ago, when Malik was up for his school-administered vaccines, his parents wouldn’t let him participate. Not knowing any better or what his legal rights were, Malik obliged.
A year later in 2017, when armed with knowledge of his rights, the then 15-year-old got his shots. “It was the least-painful needle I’ve ever gotten in my life,” he says. “They put a little Band-Aid on me, and I got a cookie.” Later that same day, he told his mom. He wanted to rub it in because she once “called me stupid, and that’s not okay. So I was gonna do it to prove her wrong.”
Besides, the vaccine stalemate is really just part of a larger family divide. “I’ve always been alienated from them in their education sense,” Malik says, particularly by his father, who is also a flat Earther. Malik is quick to note he does consider his father highly intelligent: “It’s just the feeling of knowing better than other people without actually being educated.”
Now accepted into college and fully vaccinated, both Kawliga and Malik are turning their focus to their siblings. Kawliga, for instance, has two younger sisters. The older one has some vaccines but not the youngest, a 3-year-old. “I worry about that constantly. She has nothing, nothing at all,” he says.
While Malik’s older sister and brother also chose to self-vaccinate, he has three younger siblings partially or entirely unvaccinated. He’s made it his mission to educate them, hoping by the time that they’re 15 and looking at colleges, they won’t find themselves in the same predicament he did. “I want to tell them about science enough that they believe in vaccines,” he says of his younger sisters. “I’ve done the same with my little brother who’s 14, so much so that he actually convinced my mom to let him get his own vaccines.”