In the great to vaccinate or to not vaccinate debate, one of the most common arguments against vaccination (particularly when it comes to measles) is that it is better for your (or your child’s) immune system to fight off the measles naturally. After all, we were born with this immune system, let’s give it something to do right?
I can understand the tendency to default to a nature is better mentality. And I am often skeptical when we humans try to find an artificial shortcut to trying to improve on what nature has spent billions of years perfecting. So this question is worth asking. Is it better, or at least not harmful, to let our natural immune systems deal with the measles and avoid any discomfort you have over the vaccine? In a word, no.
A recent study has found that when you get the measles, you get more than just the measles. You see waaayyy back in the 60s, when kids started first getting vaccinated for the measles, not only did measles cases drop, but over all child mortality dropped too. At the time, people just shrugged their shoulders and said “Eh, let’s say it’s just good hygiene.” And it’s that same argument that people have used against vaccinations: the vaccines didn’t help us, better hygiene did.
Turns out, it was the vaccine. A postdoc at Princeton found that measles doesn’t just make you sick, it also gives your immune system amnesia. The immune system works by remembering what you’ve been sick with in the past, so if those germs show up again (or something that looks a lot like those germs) it recognizes them immediately and fights them off before you even get sick. In fact, the measles can keep affecting the immune system for 2-3 years.
It seems like usually when we discover an amazing cure-all, we end up find out 50 years down the road that it might not be the miracle we were hoping for (I’m looking at you DDT, artificial sweeteners, etc.). But it turns out that the measles vaccine is actually better than what we had originally hoped for.
I know I know, Ebola is just soooo last year. In fact, once it became clear that (shocker) the most of Americans had about zero risk of catching Ebola all public interest pretty much seemed to drop off, despite the fact that hundreds of people in Africa continued to be infected and killed by the virus.
But every once in a while it seems that an article pops up to remind us how weird and scary the Ebola virus is. In the past week we’ve found out that not only can the virus be transmitted through sexual intercourse with a male survivor, but it can also keep living in your eyes long after it was cleared from the rest of the body.
To me, this is interesting because it’s introducing me to things about our immune system I never knew before. Like apparently the testicles have a less active immune system compared the rest of the body (fun fact, there is an entire field of study dedicated to the immune system within the testes called testicular immunology). Turns out, we have several areas in our bodies where antigens (basically things that don’t belong in your body) can be tolerated without causing an immune response. These areas are said to have immune privilege. These lucky little body parts can basically do whatever they want without fear of incurring the wrath of the antibodies, usually for good reason. In the testes this suppressed immune system is due to the fact that a male’s antibodies don’t recognize sperm and will attack and destroy them. And can you imagine if your body staged a full-scale attack every time you got a piece of dust in your eye? But, as is usually the case this privilege comes at a cost. If you turn off your security system it makes it a whole lot easier for the bad guys to get in, like Mr. Ebola.
But not all viruses need to find a weak spot to get past the body’s security guards. HIV for example is the master of disguise. This virus is so sure of itself it hides in the immune system itself. So sorry Ebola, you keep trying to be the most bad ass virus on the planet, but it looks like you still have a little work to do before I’m willing to dub you destroyer of all man kind.