Turns out getting sick is bad for you. Go figure.

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.

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About Hannah Rosen

I am a PhD candidate at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. I am currently conducting research on color change in squid skin, but my real passion is making science accessible to those outside of the field so that everyone can love it as much as I do! Science is not just for the professionals. It is fun and something that everyone can and should enjoy. Deep down we are all science nerds, you just may not know it yet!

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