Sorry, Anti-Vaxxers, ‘Natural’ Measles Immunity Naturally Hurts Your Immune System
Anti-vaxxers are big proponents of the idea that ‘natural’ immunity against disease is much better than the fakey-fake kind that comes in a syringe. And as it turns out, they’re right: getting measles immunity the hard way is better at something. It’s just that this particular ‘something’ is putting your immune system in a tailspin for the next few years.
I’m doing my best not to break down into a chorus of neener, neener, anti-vaxxers here, so bear with me. According to a study published in the journal Science (which is Kind of a Big Deal for science-y folks), a review of infectious disease cases and deaths from several countries over the past 50-odd years showed an interesting pattern. Not only did the introduction of the measles vaccine mean that measles cases dropped off — the “no duh” consequence of a regular immunization schedule — but the rates of other infectious diseases began shrinking too. Dr. Michael Mina, a researcher involved in the study, noted that the mortality rate for other infectious diseases in some developing countries had dropped by 80% after the measles vaccine had been introduced … despite the tragically non-natural nature of the vaccine, somehow.
The scientists suspect based on some preliminary studies in monkeys — but have yet to fully demonstrate — that the cause for this effect is a sort of “immunity amnesia” caused by the measles virus. The idea is that the measles virus actually somehow makes the immune system “forget” diseases it’s been exposed to in the past. According to Mina, who spoke to NPR:
Well, say you get the chicken pox when you’re 4-years-old. Your immune system figures out how to fight it. So you don’t get it again. But if you get measles when you’re 5-years-old, it could wipe out the memory of how to beat back the chicken pox. It’s like the immune system has amnesia, says Mina.
The measles vaccine, needless to say, does not have the effect of doing a Men in Black-style mind-wipe on all your hard-earned immunity.
Of course, no one should need a bonus reason for getting vaccinated against the measles, but being able to avoid other diseases that you’ve already had to deal with once is a pretty sound endorsement. It would be nice if this were the death knell for bleating about ‘natural’ immunity, but realistically, I just expect the tune of that bleating to change a little. There’s probably a convoluted anti-vaxxer explanation waiting to hatch about how having to develop immunity to chickenpox or rotavirus twice over is actually way better than just doing it once. And it’s twice as natural, too, and we all know that ‘natural’ always means ‘better’, right? So enjoy the double dose of diarrhea, kids; and remember to thank your parents.
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