Local 14-year-old leads the charge for youth vaccine access in California

‘Teens want to be free to make their own medical decisions’

When 14-year-old Arin Parsa started Teens for Vaccines in 2019, he never imagined the kinds of conversations he would soon find himself in just months later, once the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States.

Parsa, a high school freshman in San Jose, started the youth advocacy organization as a middle schooler to help educate other students and their families about vaccines after learning in middle school about a measles outbreak in Southern California that prevented someone from attending classes.

The story launched him into the intersection of science and advocacy. And soon, he was talking regularly online with teenagers distraught over parents who subscribe to conspiracy theories or other misinformation about vaccines.

“They feel sad, frustrated and isolated,” said Parsa. “There is a lot of anxiety building up with these teens.”

He’s taken his message to the national level and has even spoken with Dr. Anthony Fauci. Most recently, Parsa and other student activists with ProtectUS, Generation Up, and Max the Vax have been at the helm of a statewide push in California to make it easier for youth to get vaccinated.

This month, Sen. Scott Wiener introduced Senate Bill 866, the Teens Choose Vaccines Act, which would allow children 12 and older to get federally approved vaccines without parental consent.

Under existing law, youth 12 and older cannot be vaccinated without parental consent unless the vaccine is specifically to prevent a disease that is sexually transmitted, such as human papillomavirus. States that allow individuals ages 12 to 17 to get vaccinated without parental consent include Oregon, Alabama, Rhode Island and South Carolina.

“COVID-19 is a deadly virus for the unvaccinated, and it’s unconscionable for teens to be blocked from the vaccine because a parent either refuses or cannot take their child to a vaccination site,” said Wiener. “So many teens want to be vaccinated so that they can lead a more normal life — participating in sports or band, traveling, going to friends’ homes — but they’re prevented from doing so due to their parents’ political views or inability to find the time. Unvaccinated teens also make schools less safe and threaten our ability to keep schools open.”

The bill would also make it easier for teenagers whose parents work long hours or can’t take them to vaccination appointments, which can be a major impediment to vaccine access for low-income youth.

If passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, SB 866 would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023.

“I am so happy about this bill; it’s a major boost to teen health,” said Parsa. “Teens want to be free to make their own medical decisions.”

Meanwhile, state lawmakers this month also put forward a bill that would require students to be immunized for COVID-19 along with the state’s existing required vaccinations for public schools.

Having some experience with anti-vaccine sentiment before COVID prepared Parsa for the sensitive and difficult conversations with other teens about how to approach parents. Often times, he said, parents don’t fall directly into the anti-vax camp but instead are hesitant and may be swayed by false reports.

Still, the experience has shown Parsa the realities of online harassment and misinformation up close, and he’s already received threats of violence.

“Anti-vaxxers are notorious for online bullying, and for me, it’s no exception,” he said. “It’s been a lot to see this stuff directed towards me, and it’s been ongoing for two and a half years now. It’s been demoralizing, but for me, I just keep on going. At the end of the day, it’s someone behind a screen and the work we are doing is impactful. We’re going to keep fighting for public health and teen rights.”

Teens for Vaccines has a guide for youth to talk with caregivers about vaccines, along with other fact sheets about vaccine science and health and consent laws.

“Over the past few years, we’ve been helping teens who come to Reddit to share their own personal struggles,” he said. “At the end of the day, we love our parents. If the first conversation doesn’t work, our advice is to be gently persistent and you might break through.”

Teens for Vaccines has expanded to include 40 youth ambassadors across the country and, Parsa says, “We aren’t slowing down.”

sjohnson@sfexaminer.com

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