Long before the Covid-19 vaccine was approved for teens in the summer of 2021, 18-year-old Kelly Danielpour was working behind the scenes to get kids 12 and older vaxxed–even without parental consent. Kelly is the founder of VaxTeen, an organization for teens who want help getting vaccinated.
The VaxTeen website has resources that break down information teens might be curious about, from different state laws pertaining to vaccines, how to communicate with their parents about the topic, busting common vaccine myths, and more. VaxTeen has helped educate thousands of teens, with around a dozen queries a day reaching Kelly herself.
Even though vaccines have now been approved for children as young as 5, the issue of whether kids can choose to receive the shot themselves is still being debated. As Covid-19 variants spread, the risk of remaining unvaccinated, especially for kids and teens returning to school, remains high. For example, one unvaccinated California teacher passed the virus to half of her elementary class last year.
Kelly’s work has been well-received by many adolescents; she has received many heartwarming stories of kids and teens reaching out to her in gratitude. Back in October 2020, when the D.C. Council approved a bill for children to be vaccinated without their parents’ consent, Kelly woke up to a mailbox full of letters from newly enfranchised fifth-graders.
“It was such an incredible experience,” Kelly said. “This was something that directly affected them, but there were all these discussions saying, ‘No one at that age cares. They’re not intelligent enough to make these decisions.’ But the proof was there, in how articulate these letters were.”
Since then, not every state has followed D.C.’s lead. Tensions are still surfacing on political and family levels as COVID-19 vaccines are becoming increasingly available to adolescents. Though California requires parental consent to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, a 16-year old received his vaccination independently without his parents’ knowledge. His mother expressed concern that this could occur to other parents, as well.
The debate has intensified throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but Kelly started VaxTeen two years ago, well before this was making headlines.
She was scrolling through Reddit and stumbled upon a teenager discussing how his parents were against vaccines, but he was worried about getting other people sick.
“I was just struck by his concern for those around him,” Kelly said.
From there, as a sophomore in high school, Kelly began compiling information. She researched state laws and considered all possible interpretations of them, organizing the cited information on VaxTeen. Now, thanks to advocacy work like hers, kids can use these resources to go to their doctors and say, “Hey, I have a right to this.”
Kelly also referenced the advocacy work of other teens as the inspiration for her efforts, such as MyVote Project, a website dedicated to informing voters of their local officials’ stances. Founded by Sari Kaufman, a survivor of the 2018 Parkland shooting, MyVote Project aims to hold politicians accountable by creating a public platform for their voting patterns. She states that this forum was originally created due to the NRA swaying local politicians not to pass gun control laws, even though most Americans favor some degree of gun regulation.
Kelly said she sees a parallel between the gun violence debate and the vaccine debate.
“The everyday person supports vaccination, but they don’t show up at legislative hearings, so it’s the ‘anti-vax’ voice that’s the loudest,” she said.
Kelly suggested that those in Gen Z who are interested in preventing teens from being disenfranchised should contact their legislators and emphasize how such laws affect their health.
“You have a right to feel healthy and safe. You can and should have this right, and no one will fight for it as hard as you will,” Kelly said. “It’s your opportunity to stand up for our whole generation.”
Those under 18 fall into the age range with the lowest rates of vaccination in the U.S. due to the delayed approval for teen vaccination, parents’ decision-making power, as well as personal hesitance, which is something adults similarly experience.
“Teenagers do collectively feel this sense of responsibility,” Kelly says, referencing those she knew who didn’t feel vulnerable but still felt committed to keeping others safe. “We did see side effects that are concerning for teenagers, and parents, as well. I do think we should protect someone’s right to feel protected. It comes down to translating that this isn’t some grand, malicious plot.”
Of course, not all teens feel similarly, and some are conflicted by a sense of insecurity. Feeling protected depends on how certain a teen can be on vaccine safety. Ultimately, then, the vaccine debate is an issue of communication, and the question of whether Gen Z will be the generation that revives a trust in science is raised.
As a generation that grew up with the Internet, can this revival be done through access to reputable sources and reliable information, and can Gen Z affect the ongoing debate? To this, Kelly powerfully responds, “We are the next generation of parents. We will be having this conversation with our teens someday. We have the ability to connect and the willingness to have these conversations.”
But those conversations aren’t just for the future. VaxTeen is also encouraging teens to engage in productive conversation with their own parents right now. Her tips include starting the conversation addressing what information they think is true about vaccines and their remaining questions about them. This strategy dispels myths and opens a comfortable space to direct people toward correct information. Such dialogue could be monumental for assuring both parents and teens on vaccine safety.
“I hope more teens talk about these things, and no one feels dumb asking questions, and no one makes anyone feel dumb for asking questions,” Kelly said.
To Kelly and other vaccine advocates, the “anti-vax” movement is motivated by fear. But, she suggests that the intention on both sides of the conversation is ultimately the same—keeping kids safe—and that communicating vaccines’ effectiveness would resolve such disputes.
As Kelly completes her first year at Stanford, she hopes to pursue a career in health policy. She described how the balance between school and her organization can be overwhelming at times, so she’s excited to share responsibility with more teens who are becoming part of VaxTeen and promoting resources in their own communities. With a hopeful outlook for the future, Kelly still stressed the urgency of the current moment.
“There are fantastic high-schoolers that are now leading, answering their peers’ questions,” she said. “VaxTeen is definitely an ode to teenagers. Though, I hope one day there will be no use for it.”