Fact Or Fiction
In the past decade we’ve seen a shift toward green, eco-friendly and natural living. Many of us have worked to reduce our carbon footprint, preserve the environment, and keep toxins and anything labeled “artificial” out of our homes and our bodies. Some people want to “green our vaccines” by calling out chemicals and seemingly scary-sounding ingredients.
Some individuals who are concerned about the safety of vaccines and their ingredients have begun to promote natural immunity over vaccine-induced immunity, but the only way to get natural immunity is through infection with the actual disease. This means that you have to get sick—sometimes severely ill—to develop resistance.
Vaccines, on the other hand, cause a natural immune response in the body without causing illness. Vaccines are safe because the viruses or bacteria used in vaccines are dead or have been severely weakened. Our bodies recognize these weakened invaders and create antibodies to protect us against future infection. In this way, we trick our bodies into thinking we’ve already had the disease.
Both natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity result in long-lasting, sometimes life-long, active immunity. However, the benefits of vaccine-induced immunity are much greater and the risk is much lower:
- While natural immunity typically lasts longer, some vaccines produce longer-lasting immunity, such as HPV, tetanus (DTaP), Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), and pneumococcal.
- Vaccines often protect against multiple strains of a disease, whereas infection only provides future protection against one strain. Influenza, HPV, Polio, and Pneumococcus are examples of vaccine-preventable diseases which have several strains.
- Not all infections offer life-long immunity to even a single strain (i.e. pertussis).
The difference between vaccination and natural infection is the price paid for immunity. There are many costs when one chooses to forgo the protection provided by vaccines:
- About one out of 1,000 children infected with varicella (chickenpox) will develop severe pneumonia (infection of the lungs) or encephalitis (infection of the brain).
- Five to 10% of people who get meningococcal meningitis die even with antibiotic treatment. Of those who live, another 11% to 19% lose their arms or legs, become deaf, have problems with their nervous systems, become intellectually disabled, or suffer seizures or strokes.
- Rubella infection during pregnancy can cause birth defects including deafness, cataracts, heart defects, intellectual and developmental disability, and liver and spleen damage.
- Most newborns and about 50% of children who are infected with hepatitis B develop chronic hepatitis. Chronic hepatitis damages the liver and can lead to liver cancer or cirrhosis.
Overall, the risks of natural infection outweigh the risks of immunization for every recommended vaccine. For instance, measles infection causes encephalitis (infection or swelling of the brain) for 1 in 1,000 infected individuals and kills two of every 1,000 infected individuals. Research also shows that measles infection can damage the immune system, leaving children vulnerable to other diseases for as long as three years. In contrast, the risk of encephalitis as a result of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine is 1 in 1,000,000.
Proper hand washing and cough etiquette can help limit the spread of illness, but these practices only go so far. Vaccination reduces the overall spread of disease, and protects those who are unvaccinated, cannot be vaccinated, have a weakened immune system, or are pregnant. These people are at increased risk for complications associated with vaccine-preventable diseases and rely on the vaccinated members of their community to shield them from infection. When individuals choose to not vaccinate, they increase the risk of infecting those around them. It is our responsibility to keep ourselves, our loved ones and our communities safe.
It is important to mention that vaccines are not always 100% effective. During a disease outbreak, a number of vaccinated people could become infected. However, children who have been immunized will most likely have a less serious form of illness. Those who are not vaccinated are in the greatest danger of severe complications, such as hospitalization.
There is no need for children today to suffer from preventable diseases. Both natural immunity and immunity from vaccines provide protection, but getting sick, or putting others in danger, just isn’t worth the risk.