Is Natural Immunity The Better Option? The Debate Between Natural Immunity and Vaccines

Often, people who are against vaccines will discuss whether natural immunity can be an alternative. This is often mentioned due to people doubting the efficacy or safety of a vaccine. Due to the potential impact of this information, I think that we should look into the evidence and see what is determined to be the better option: vaccines, or natural immunity?


Image created by Lucy T via Canva

What is Natural Immunity?


Natural immunity refers to how the body, once sick, tends to learn how to combat an illness in order to prevent infection again in the future. For instance, if you had chickenpox as a kid, you will not catch chickenpox again after that. This is because your body, while fighting off the virus, learned how to combat it to prevent future infection.

There are many people who are claiming that natural immunity is a good alternative to vaccination. But, in order to achieve natural immunity, you have to get infected first. This is clearly not a good strategy to prevent a highly transmissible and dangerous disease. Polio provides us a history lesson that anti-vaxxers should take to heart.


Polio is a disease caused by the poliovirus which heavily impacted many people between 1894 and 1979 in the United States. The last people who had polio in America were anti-vaxxers. 35,000 people each year suffered from disabilities as a result of polio, with 15,000 per year having to deal with paralysis as a result of it. After a vaccine was introduced, this number plummeted to about 100 a year.


"Natural immunity", from catching polio, made many people paralyzed, unable to use their arms or legs, often for the rest of their lives. On top of that is the iron lung, this device was used to force the body to breathe, as the paralysis caused by polio prevented the lungs from moving.


If people survived the symptoms of polio, many would suffer the aftermath of infection coined the ‘late effects of polio’. These include fatigue, muscle pain, weakness, and joint pain. These develop about 15 years after a polio infection and can disable you for the rest of your life. These same symptoms are being seen in the long-haul effects following Covid-19 recovery.


Similar to Covid-19, the data shows that most people infected with polio showed few or no symptoms and that only 1% of people became paralyzed or died as a result. Yet, polio was considered a public health threat. Many of polio's negative health effects and deaths could have been avoided through proper vaccination. Today, polio has been mostly eradicated, Covid-19, however, continues to infect thousands on a daily basis. Like polio, the majority of people who catch Covid-19 survive. That said, almost twice as many people have died as a result of Covid-19 (1.8%) than people who have been paralyzed as a result of polio (1%).


7% of all people who get covid-19 are admitted to a hospital for treatment. Of these people, according to the CDC, 24% of people who test positive for Covid-19 go to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and 13% have to go on ventilators.


While natural immunity does get the body to protect against certain diseases and germs, it also contributes to a high risk of death, disability, and avoidable harm. Knowing this to be the effect of natural immunity, let's look at vaccines.


What are Vaccines?


Vaccines refer to a variety of preparations that are designed to stimulate the body's immune response against diseases the body has not yet fought. This is usually done by injection, but a few vaccines can be administered via the mouth or nose.


They train your immune system to create antibodies, the same way your body would if exposed to a disease-causing pathogen. However, since vaccines usually contain weakened or dead viruses and bacteria, you are not at any risk of being infected, and ergo do not have to deal with the potentially dangerous and deadly symptoms of having the disease.


Most people who are against vaccination (known as anti-vaxxers) lump all vaccines into a single entity, which is not accurate. Vaccines can take many different forms, contain different ingredients, and react with the body in different ways. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), there are several different types of vaccines, including:

  • Inactivated vaccines

  • Live-attenuated vaccines

  • Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines

  • Subunit, recombinant, polysaccharide, and conjugate vaccines

  • Toxoid vaccines

  • Viral vector vaccines

Inactivated vaccines contain dead versions of the virus, which is not as effective as live vaccines, but have been great at helping people prevent the flu, polio, and hepatitis A.


Live-attenuated vaccines contain a weakened version of the virus, so they work a lot better at combating diseases like chickenpox, smallpox, measles, mumps, and rubella.


mRNA vaccines make proteins with a certain shape to trigger an immune response. Most Covid-19 vaccines are made using this method, as the vaccine helps the body learn to attack a specific protein in the virus, which helps the virus fight off the infection.


Subunit, recombinant, polysaccharide, and conjugate vaccines are a group of vaccines that use a specific part of the germ, such as a sugar, a protein, or the casing around the germ. This helps the body target a specific part of the germ, helping to protect against diseases like Shingles, Hepatitis B, whooping cough, and HPV


Toxoid vaccines sound a bit scary but they are designed to help protect the infected person from toxins that a particular germ releases. They don't attack the germ directly. Your immune system will eventually clear the germ on its own. This is generally used to treat infections like tetanus.


Viral vector vaccines form an immunity by using a modified version of a different virus to get the body to learn how to protect itself against the target virus. This technology has been used in the development of some Covid-19 vaccines, as well as other vaccines for Zika and Ebola.


Dr. Aaron Caroll discusses this in a video that he made about vaccines, and how our body reacts to viruses and infections. You can check out his video below:


Even on top of this, there are more forms of vaccines that are being developed. Vaccines utilize a vast variety of technologies to achieve the same end goal of protection. So arguments against vaccination lumping them all together reflects how little some people know when criticizing vaccines.


Vaccine Efficacy


Vaccines are rarely 100% effective. Some vaccines can be very close to 100%, such as 2 doses of the MMR vaccine being 97% effective against the symptoms of Measles and Rubella and 88% effective against mumps. Others are not as effective, like the flu shot, which is often 40-60% effective at preventing the seasonal flu. Covid vaccines, even in the face of the Delta variant, are between 71.9% and 97.3% protective depending on dose, vaccine type, and how long since you've been vaccinated.


Unless you have a compromised immune system, it is still a great idea to get vaccinated, even if the efficacy is low. Unlike natural immunity, a vaccine will provide immunity without the risks associated with catching the disease. While some people may experience side effects with vaccines, very rarely do these become worse than a sore arm, or a slight fever.


Always speak with your doctor first if you have concerns; but ultimately, it makes a lot more sense to get a vaccine and receive the same or similar immunity against disease as opposed to getting sick and possibly harmed to get the same protection. Or worse, spread a disease to others who might not be able to combat the disease, such as the immunocompromised and the elderly.


Lastly, it must be clearly stated that it's not about 100% effectiveness (as some really bad memes joke about) it's about reducing the chances of infection so much that spread is minimized. This reduces illness and death.