Is natural immunity – the kind of immunity you get from actually getting a disease – better than immunity from a vaccine?
All things being equal, sure.
Unfortunately, all things aren’t equal when it comes to the question of natural immunity vs ‘artificial’ or vaccine induced immunity.
What Are the Benefits of Natural Immunity?
There are benefits of natural immunity.
If you get a disease, like measles or rubella, you typically have life-long immunity and won’t get it again.
That immunity comes at a price though.
In addition to being sick for a few days or weeks with the symptoms of the disease, many vaccine-preventable diseases can have serious complications. Most are life-threatening.
“…the high price of natural immunity, that is, occasionally severe and fatal disease, is a risk not worth taking.”
Paul Offit, MD
So instead of just getting a vaccine, you have to earn your natural immunity by surviving the disease and hoping that you don’t have any of these serious complications:
- chicken pox can be associated with meningitis, encephalitis, secondary pneumonia, skin infections, and sometimes death, and folks who have had chicken pox are thought to be at higher risk for shingles than those who have had a chicken pox vaccine
- diphtheria can cause myocarditis, neuritis, and diaphragmatic paralysis, and death in 5 to 20 percent of people
- about 50 percent of children (and 90 percent of infants) with hepatitis B develop chronic hepatitis B infections and can later develop scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), liver failure, and liver cancer
- Hib can cause hearing impairment, neurologic sequelae, and death in 2 to 5 percent of cases
- measles can cause pneumonia, seizures, and encephalitis, and death in about 1 in 1000 cases and Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis (SSPE) is a fatal, late complication of natural measles infections and which might occur in as many as 1:1700 people who have had measles.
- mumps can cause orchitis (testicular inflammation), oophoritis (ovarian inflammation), pancreatitis, meningitis, encephalitis, deafness, and sometimes death
- pertussis can cause pneumonia, seizures, and encephalopathy, and death in 0.2 percent of cases.
- polio can cause meningitis, flaccid paralysis, and death in 2 to 5 percent of children and 25 to 40 percent survivors are at risk for Post-Polio Syndrome, with new symptoms of pain, fatigue, and weakness developing later
- rotavirus can cause severe diarrhea and dehydration and used to cause 20 to 60 deaths a year.
- rubella can cause arthritis, thrombocytopenic purpura, and encephalitis, but the bigger concern is pregnant women who get rubella, which can lead to spontaneous abortions, neonatal deaths, and congenital rubella syndrome.
- tetanus can cause generalized muscle spasms and death in 11 percent of cases. Neonatal tetanus is also a concern.
That’s why for most of us, there is no question.
Our kids are fully vaccinated and we are very glad that they have artificial immunity against measles, Hib, pneumococcal disease, and hepatitis B, etc.
Myths About Natural Immunity
And people shouldn’t get confused about “natural” immunity.
It doesn’t mean that you just wake up and have immunity against a disease one day naturally. Again, you have to earn that immunity, by getting sick with the disease and hoping you don’t have any complications, some of which can be life-threatening. That’s why it is silly to think about checking titers if you haven’t been vaccinated or had a disease already, even though some anti-vaccine people propose doing that.
Even the idea that getting an infection provides life-long immunity isn’t always true. It certainly isn’t for some diseases, like pertussis or tetanus.
And getting one type of an infection doesn’t always mean that you will be protected against others. There are three serotypes of polio, for example, and immunity is serotype-specific. You would have to get all three serotypes of polio to equal the protection of the polio vaccine!
Other myths about natural immunity you may hear include that it is good to have childhood diseases, like measles or diphtheria.
That is of course ridiculous.
“Vaccination has greatly reduced the burden of infectious diseases. Only clean water, also considered to be a basic human right, performs better. Paradoxically, a vociferous antivaccine lobby thrives today in spite of the undeniable success of vaccination programmes against formerly fearsome diseases that are now rare in developed countries.”
Andre et al on Vaccination greatly reduces disease, disability, death and inequity worldwide
In fact, we now know that people who survive a measles infection can have some immunosuppression for up to two to three years! This measles-induced immune damage puts them at risk of dying from other diseases and helps explain why kids who are vaccinated against measles are also less likely to die from other childhood infections.
What to Know About the Benefits of Natural Immunity
The benefit of natural immunity, developing life-long immunity, comes at such a high price that it is not worth skipping or delaying your child’s vaccines to get it.
More on the Benefits of Natural Immunity
- Immunity : Natural and Acquired
- Natural Immunity
- Immunity Types
- Vaccines and the Immune System
- Passive Immunization
- The suffering the search for “natural immunity” inflicts on children
- The horrible consequences of seeking “natural” immunity
- WHO – Vaccination greatly reduces disease, disability, death and inequity worldwide
- Measles Vaccine Reduces Death From Other Infections Too — By Preventing ‘Immune Amnesia’
- Study – Long-term measles-induced immunomodulation increases overall childhood infectious disease mortality
- Study – When Not All That Counts Can Be Counted: Economic Evaluations And The Value Of Vaccination
- Study – The Social Value Of Vaccination Programs: Beyond Cost-Effectiveness
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