Is being sick a good thing? The answer to that question should be an obvious and resounding, “no!” Nevertheless, it is an extremely common claim made by anti-vaccers. They frequently argue that vaccine preventable diseases like measles are actually good for you, and it is a good thing to get sick (for example, in this hilarious video, you can see Tenpenny claiming that it was good that she was so sick as a child that she missed the entire 3rd grade). Therefore, I am going to use simple examples, rudimentary logic, and basic science to explain why this claim is utterly absurd.
Before I begin, I want to clarify that this post is not about vaccines. Although the claim that “being sick is good” is used to argue that we should not use vaccines, the claim itself must be either true or false on its own merits. In other words, the safety and effectiveness of vaccines has no bearing on whether or not it is true that being sick is actually good for you. So although the argument has implications for vaccines, the argument itself is not about vaccines.
1). A simple thought experiment
Let me begin this post with a simple thought experiment that (I think) will clearly demonstrate that the people making this claim are disingenuous. Let’s imagine that we were in the pre-vaccine era when measles was an extremely common and prevalent disease. Now, let’s imagine that someone discovered an herb that was free, 100% natural, 100% safe, and 100% effective at preventing measles (for the sake of example, assume that everyone agreed on all of those points). Would you use the herb or would you allow your children to suffer and potentially die? I find it extremely difficult to accept that parents would actually watch their children suffer through a miserable disease that kills 1 out of every 1000 patients rather than using a preventative measure that they know is 100% safe and 100% effective. I can, of course, make many hypothetical examples like this. For example, if there was a medicine that was 100% safe and 100% effective at preventing colds, I would absolutely take it (and I’m betting you would to).
Now, you may be thinking, “but vaccines aren’t 100% safe or 100% effective.” In which case, you are missing the point. Once again, this is not an argument about vaccines. Rather, it is an argument about whether or not it is good to be sick, and if in the hypothetical situations that I have proposed, you would use the herb to avoid being sick, then you have just affirmed that you do in fact think that being sick is a bad thing. That is what the rules of consistent reasoning dictate.
Note: you can find additional information about why the “vaccines aren’t 100% safe/effective” argument is flawed here.
2). People die from illnesses
Next, I want to bring up what is probably the most obvious problem with the claim that being sick is a good thing. Namely, the fact that many people die from being sick. The diseases that anti-vaccers tout as being “good” are actually deadly. For example, the WHO estimates that measles killed 114,900 in 2014 and 145,700 in 2013. Similarly, every year the flu kills anywhere from 250,000-500,000 annually, with over 1,000 deaths in the US alone (Thompson et al. 2010). Further, in 2008 alone, the WHO estimated that for children under 5 years old, haemophilus influenza type B killed 199,000, pertussis killed 195,000, measles killed 118,000, neonatal tetanus killed 59,000, non-neonatal tetanus killed 2,000, pneumococcal disease killed 476,000, and rotvirus killed 453,000. Indeed, even illnesses that are usually mild can be fatal. For example, prior to vaccines, chicken pox hospitalized 10,500 people annually and killed 100-150. So, being sick is clearly not a good thing for all of the people who die from being sick.
3). It’s hypocritical to claim that being sick is good
My thought experiment (#1) has already established that it is inconsistent to say that being sick is a good thing, but let’s examine the hypocrisy further. I have never once encountered someone who actually lives as if being sick is a good thing (despite their claims to the contrary). Take hand washing, for example. Why do you do it if being sick is a good thing? Similarly, anti-vaccers love to rant about how wonderful modern sanitation is and how it is supposedly the reason for the decline in disease rates (it’s not), but if being sick is good, then sanitation must be bad. In other words, if it is good to be sick, then something that does nothing other than preventing you from being sick must be bad. Am I making my point clear? If someone actually thought that being sick was good, then they would never wash their hands, they would encourage sick people to cough and sneeze in their face, they would make their kids play with feces, etc. They don’t do that, however, because everyone knows that being sick is not a good thing, even if they make claims to the contrary.
4). Getting sick is a terrible way to avoid getting sick
When asked why they think that being sick is good for you, anti-vaxxers typically respond with something to the effect of, “Being sick builds the immune system, and once you get a disease, you’re protected from it for life.” The “logic” of this claim is so outrageously horrible that it makes my head hurt. In its simplest form we can set the argument up using the following syllogism:
- Getting a disease will prevent you from getting it again
- Therefore, getting a disease is a good thing
This syllogism is obviously problematic for numerous reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it’s missing a premise. You see, being protected from a disease is only a good thing if getting the disease is a bad thing. In other words, the argument has to be structured like this:
- Getting a disease will prevent you from getting it again
- Getting a disease is bad
- Therefore, getting a disease is a good thing
Is the problem with this argument clear now? Lifetime protection from a disease is only a good thing if getting the disease is a bad thing, but if getting the disease is a bad thing, then getting the disease cannot simultaneously be a good thing. It is utterly idiotic to think that it is good to get a disease so that you won’t get the disease. It’s no different from saying, “My friends want me to go snowboarding, but I’m afraid that if I do I will break my leg. Therefore, I am going to break my leg before the trip, that way I have an excuse for not going snowboarding and will be protected from breaking my leg a second time.”
5). Getting sick is a bad way to build the immune system
At this point, you may be thinking, “Fine, getting sick is a bad way to protect yourself from a specific disease, but doesn’t getting sick build your overall immune system?” The answer to that question is a bit complex and multifaceted, but the short answer is, “not really.”
First, there is little evidence (at least to my knowledge) of childhood infections actually strengthening your immune system. In other words, if, as an adult, you get exposed to something like the flu virus, the way that your immune system reacts will not be dependent on whether or not you previous had childhood diseases like measles. Granted, it is true that for many diseases your body will become immune to them after recovering from an infection (if you recover), but that does not impact your body’s ability to fight other infections. Each pathogen contains specific antigens (surface recognition molecules) which your body uses to distinguish friend from foe, and you become immune by producing antibodies and immune cells that are specific for particular antigens. Thus, when you get an infection, your body creates immune cells that are specific for that infection. So, being sick only “builds your immune system” in that it prevents you from getting the same strain of a given disease twice, and we have already established that getting sick to avoid getting sick is idiotic (see #4).
The next important topic is the hygiene hypothesis. In its simplest terms, this states that childhood infections train our immune system, and a lack of early infections is the cause for increases in the rates of autoimmune problems like allergies and asthma. There are several things to note about this. First, although this is a plausible hypothesis, we aren’t really sure if it is correct. There is a lot of support for it, but the immune system is amazingly complex and there is still a lot that we don’t know. So although the hygiene hypothesis seems very likely, it’s not the only possibility, and the true answer is probably the combination of several hypotheses (Rook 2011).
Second, there is growing evidence that it is not the actual infections that are responsible for training our immune systems; rather, it is beneficial helminths and microorganisms (Gaurner et al. 2006; this is a modification of the hygiene hypothesis known as the “old friends hypothesis”). Our bodies are hosts to untold legions of beneficial microorganisms, and our current sanitation standards are likely preventing us from coming into contact with many of the species that we coexisted with historically. Thus, it is likely that rising rates of allergies, asthma, etc. are from a deficiency of beneficial bacteria, rather than a lack of childhood infections.
Third, under the hygiene/old friends hypothesis, microorganisms are not helping to “build” the immune system as much as “control” the immune system. The autoimmune disorders that they prevent are usually situations where the body over-reacts and basically attacks itself. During an allergy attack like hay-fever, for example, your body over-reacts to harmless hay antigens and mounts an unnecessarily strong response. It is the histamines and other chemicals that your body releases that make you feel like crap. So, rather than building a more robust immune system, microorganisms actually teach your immune system to tone things down and not over-react (again, I’m describing things in absurdly simplistic terms, but I’m afraid that I will lose people if I start talking about cytokines, Th1 cells, Th2 cells, etc.).
Finally, even if a lack of childhood illness, like measles infections, was responsible for the increase in autoimmune diseases, that would still not make being sick a good thing, because the argument would still be, “it’s good to be sick, because it prevents you from being sick.” Granted, this time you are getting one disease to avoid getting a different disease, but those first diseases are often horrible (see #2), and we are much better off with the later category. If you don’t believe me, just look at the data for life expectancy, infant moralities, etc. As diseases have been eliminated, child mortality rates have plummeted and life expectancies have steadily climbed. So I, for one, do not long for the good old days where no one had allergies, but 1 out of every 10 infants died (and I suffer from really bad allergies, btw).
6). Measles infections weaken your immune system
Finally, I want to talk about a recent study which found that getting a measles infection actually harms your immune system. This study (Mina et al. 2015) looked at the long term effects of measles infections, and it found that measles is so devastating to your immune system that it takes two to three years for your immune system to return to normal functional levels. In other words, for up to three years after a measles infection, your body is at a greater risk of additional infections. This is extremely clear evidence that being sick is most definitely not a good thing, because measles infections actually weaken your immune system.
In summary, arguing that being sick is a good thing is hypocritical because everyone actively attempts to avoid being sick, and any rational person would use a completely safe and effective preventative measure. Further, being sick only builds the immune system in that it prevents you from getting a particular strain of a particular disease a second time, and getting sick to avoid getting sick makes no sense whatsoever. Finally, some diseases actually result in a decreased immune response for months or even years after an infection. Therefore, being sick is clearly a bad thing and should be avoided (duh).