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Why You (Got, or Had to Get, or Should Get) Vaccinated

There is a huge amount of misinformation floating around concerning vaccines and vaccinations. It's an extremely important topic, most especially for those in college or just starting a family. When I saw the question below, I felt compelled to answer. I've reproduced my answer here because I think it's important for members of the KSU community.

I'm not a physician, but what I've written is common sense, not medical advice. If you have questions, ask your doctor, OK?

[name redacted] wrote:
I'm in my mid twenties and haven't had a vaccine in ages. I've been sick quite a few time times since then including multiple times a year.

I'm genuinely curious, what's wrong with being sick? I drink green tea, and [give] my body plenty of rest but I feel like it's 'exercise' for my immune system to actually fight infection instead of being 'given the answers' by way of immunization.

First of all, being sick sucks! We should all avoid it.

Possibly more important, there are diseases that can literally kill you, and for which vaccines are available. Being killed by a disease would probably suck, too. I haven't tried it. But here's an example, if you didn't have chickenpox as a child and haven't been vaccinated, you should talk to your doctor. It's usually no big deal for kids1 but can be lethal for adults. Having chickenpox as a kid exercises your immune system at a time when your body is equipped to fight the disease. But that exercise protects against only the varicella pathogen, not against "being sick in general."

Young woman receiving vaccination

Vaccinations hurt a lot less than a tequila hangover. Not that the young woman in the photograph would know about tequila hangovers, of course. Courtesy James Galway and Centers for Disease Control via WikiMedia Commons.

To my mind, the most important reason to have the recommended vaccinations is to protect others. Part of the social contract is that we don't give diseases to others. We wash our hands, cough into our sleeves, stay home when sick, etc. You, a healthy 20-something might come down with rubella and not even know it. It's a mild disease, passed along by coughs, sneezes, and even breathing. If you pass rubella along to a woman early in pregnancy, it is quite likely to cause severe birth defects or even fetal death. If you want a scare, look up congenital rubella syndrome. Surely none of us would wish that on our friends' children.

You wrote that getting sick exercises your immune system, and it does, provided whatever you have doesn't kill you. The thing is, your immune system does not get tough in general; it "learns" to respond to specific diseases. I am reminded of Professor Flitwick teaching the Hogwarts doors to recognize Sirius Black.

Exercising your immune system is exactly how vaccines work. Vaccines introduce pathogens for specific diseases into your body, but the pathogens have been killed, attenuated, or inactivated, so they don't make you sick. Your immune system learns to recognize those pathogens, so if you are exposed for real, the exercise provided by the vaccine has enabled your immune system to fight off the actual threat.

As you have found out, being sick "in general," doesn't keep you from getting sick again. "Every microbe and bacillus has a different way to kill us," and so there are vaccines to exercise your immune system for different diseases.

Vaccines aren't perfect. Some "wear off" in the sense that your immune system loses its sensitivity to the pathogen. That's why you need a tetanus booster every ten years or so. Flu vaccines are medical scientists' best guess about what strains of flu will be around months later. If they guess wrong, or you are exposed to a strain not in the vaccine, you may get the flu. There is no vaccine for the common cold because "colds" are caused by so many different viruses.

So, even though you understand that vaccines are not perfect, you owe it to yourself and to those around you to get the recommended vaccines.

1 The varicella (chickenpox) vaccine was added to the childhood immunization schedule in the United States in 1995, and a second dose was added to the schedule in 2006. Two doses of varicella vaccine protect 99% of the population from the disease. If you're in the unlucky 1%, the vaccine will still make the disease much milder.

Last updated: 2018-02-09 22:08  
Originally published: