Exploring issues and controversies in the relationship between science and medicine
The notion that society and children benefit when they contract vaccine-preventable diseases used to be relegated to the fringes of the anti-vaccine movement. It is now embraced by doctors at prestigious universities.
A frequent theme at Science Based Medicine is that when it comes to minimizing COVID and spreading misinformation about vaccines, “everything old is new again“. Every argument made in favor of leaving children vulnerable to COVID is a recycled anti-vaccine talking point. It’s all very familiar to those of us who’ve been immersed in the anti-vaccine movement.
What’s new is who is making these arguments and how influential they’ve been.
With this is mind, let’s examine of the more absurd pre-pandemic beliefs about vaccine-preventable diseases, namely that they are beneficial for children. A typical example comes courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Margulis, an author who describes herself by saying “I am not anti-vaccine, I am pro-questions.” She is, of course, anti-vaccine. But it goes beyond that. In a documentary called The Vaccine War, she said,
Why are we giving children so many vaccines? They get four times the number of vaccines than I got when I was child growing up in the ‘70s. As a parent, I would rather see my child get a natural illness and contract that the way that illnesses have been contracted for at least 200,000 years that homo sapiens has been around. I’m not afraid of my children getting chicken pox. There are reasons that children get sick. Getting sick is not a bad thing.
This is not just anti-vaccine, but pro-virus. It is also wrong. Children do not benefit from getting sick with chickenpox. While very few children suffer serious consequences from chickenpox, it killed about 100 people per year before the vaccine and hospitalized 10,500 more. Moreover, children who contract chickenpox are at risk for shingles, a painful, and potentially devastating disorder that can cause blindness and cardiovascular disease. Church bells didn’t ring for the chickenpox vaccine they way they did the polio vaccine, but it’s good that fewer children suffer thanks to this vaccine.
Now, let’s examine one of the pandemic’s more absurd essays, Should We Let Children Catch Omicron?, by Drs. Vinay Prasad and Allison Krug. Doctors with real-world responsibility for sick children, unlike Drs. Prasad and Krug, would answer with a resounding “NO,” especially before children have been vaccinated. After all, before he inexplicably turned completely against the pediatric COVID vaccine, even Dr. Prasad conceded that “Vaccines protect against severe disease and side-effects such as MIS-C.” He was absolutely right, and while the vaccine isn’t perfect, this is exactly why pediatricians are eager to vaccinate their patients.
Though Omicron was milder per child, Omicron hospitalized 5-times more children than the Delta variant because it was so much more contagious. Over 900 children per day were hospitalized during its peak in January 2022. Some pediatric hospitals were overwhelmed, schools closed due to sick staff, and about 20% of pediatric deaths occurred during the winter Omicron wave. Drs. Vinay and Krug published their article on February 2nd, 2022 after most of this had occurred, and played word-games by writing that the “Omicron variant resulted in 66% fewer hospitalisations than [Delta] in a study of children younger than 5 years.”
However, beyond this sophistry, the article by Drs. Prasad and Krug contained very familiar sentiments. They wrote that measures to protect children,
Are premised on the idea that America’s children must be shielded from exposure to Covid-19. What kids really need, however, is a return to normal. And when it comes to infectious disease, normality means a world where they are routinely exposed to, and overcome, viral illness. For children, getting sick and recovering is part of a natural and healthy life…
Parents must consider that exposures are how we best protect our children against the variants of the future. In fact, it is reckless to let children age into a more serious encounter with a disease best dealt with while younger.
“Immunity is built through illness,” they said
This is not just anti-vaccine, but pro-virus. It is also wrong. Immunity is built through vaccines as well as illness, and there’s no evidence immunity to COVID lasts a lifetime. Most importantly, it’s not “healthy” when children get sick with COVID.
Pro-virus arguments take two forms: sick children are good for society and sickness benefits individual children. Prior to the pandemic, these ideas were relegated to the fringe of the anti-vaccine movement, though they are now promoted by highly-credentialed doctors at prestigious universities with access to powerful politicians.
The idea that children should get sick to protect vulnerable adult precedes COVID, and is one of the main arguments anti-vaxxers used against the chickenpox vaccine. According to this twisted logic, children with chickenpox provide an “immune boost” to adults, who are then less likely to get shingles. For this reason, it’s good when unvaccinated children contract chickenpox. This is, of course, completely false, and even if it were true, infecting children to protect adults is a moral abomination. Children have the right to be protected against diseases that can harm them.
Not everyone sees it this way. Drs. Prasad and Krug embraced this anti-vaccine myth saying,
Shielding kids from exposure only increases their future risk. This is partly why the UK does not vaccinate against chickenpox. Serious complications from the disease are rare among children, and the circulating virus allows adults to be naturally boosted against reactivation-driven shingles. By rebuilding population immunity among the least at-risk, moreover, we help buffer risk for those most vulnerable.
Promoting the idea that sick children should be used as human shields for COVID as well, they favorably quoted Dr. Francois Balloux who said,
I’m not sure how to convey this message in a half-acceptable way. But, if the objective were to send SARCoV2 into endemicity, then healthy kids have to be exposed to the virus, ideally earlier than later. This is not ‘eugenism’; it is bog-standard infection disease epidemiology.
They also favorably quoted a paper in The British Journal of Medicine that said,
Once most adults are vaccinated, circulation of SARS-CoV-2 may in fact be desirable, as it is likely to lead to primary infection early in life when disease is mild, followed by booster re-exposures throughout adulthood… This would keep reinfections mild and immunity up to date.
The notion that there are societal benefits when children get sick with COVID was the entire basis behind the Great Barrington Declaration, and members of the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation felt “that natural infection in children could have substantial long-term benefits on COVID-19 in the UK.”
Dr. John Ioannidis also wrote about the benefits of sick, unvaccinated children. At the start of the pandemic, he lamented that “school closures may also diminish the chances of developing herd immunity in an age group that is spared serious disease”. He later wrote an article titled “COVID-19 in Children and University Students“. After presenting an argument for vaccinating young people based on “indirect benefits to other age groups and society at large,” he said,
However, the opposite arguments also exist, e.g. vaccinating the youngest age strata may shift infection to higher ages with high fatality especially as many elderly people in many countries are still not vaccinated and some vaccinated elderly have insufficient immune responses. Vaccinated people may still transmit the virus; given that vaccinations make infections milder/asymptomatic and people markedly increase exposures after vaccination (a risk compensatory behavior), vulnerable people may be exposed more frequently to vaccinated infected youth who are unaware of their infection.
Via this strange reasoning, the fact that “vaccinations make infections milder/asymptomatic” is a strike against the vaccine. It’s not enough for children to merely contract the virus, in order to protect elderly people, they must also feel really sick.
There’s no evidence for any of this. Even though the CDC published data this February that 75% of children have contracted COVID, the oft-promised herd immunity has yet to arrive. Meanwhile, the only “substantial long-term benefits” the UK got for their high rates of pediatric “natural immunity” were headlines that read, “Children Drive Britain’s Longest-Running Covid Surge” and “Twice as Many People Died With Covid in UK This Summer Compared With 2021“. Moreover, not all children are “spared serious disease”.
Beyond this, anti-vaccine doctors have long claimed that getting sick is good for individual children. In his book Vaccines, Autoimmunity, and the Changing Nature of Childhood Illness, Dr. Thomas Cowan, who blamed 5G for COVID and recently surrendered his medical license, said,
We (modern doctors) have forgotten (or never learned) that acute disease—disease that is typically self-limiting and usually accompanied by fever, rash, and pus—is the primary way the body rids itself of unwanted toxins or other substances.
Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, who claimed that COVID vaccines magnetize people, said that,
We’ve got to stop calling chickenpox and measles diseases, because they’re not. They’re infections, and infections come and go in a week to ten days, and leave behind a lifetime of immunity. A disease is something that comes and stays, and frequently can’t be cured. So when you vaccinate to avoid an infection, what you potentially are doing is causing a disease.
Dr. Kelly Brogan and Sayer Ji wrote an article titled “HPV Vaccine Maker’s Study Proves Natural HPV Infection Beneficial, Not Deadly” in which they argued that the best way to prevent complications from HPV infections was to get infected with HPV. They wrote that,
Given the possibility that HPV infection itself confers protection against HPV reinfection and its more serious health implications (e.g. CIN1+), and that the HPV vaccine may not offer the same level of protection that our inborn adaptive immune responses to natural HPV infection does, we should pause to question the dominant HPV memes circulating out there – via the CDC, the pediatricians, the mainstream media – that proffer HPV is a ‘vaccine-preventable’ disease that we are morally and socially obligated to engage ‘preventively’ through vaccinating every susceptible adolescent on the planet. This fear-borne meme driving the herd to vaccinate against HPV—and everything else —is at least as infectious as the very virus they falsely promise their bivalent and quadrivalent vaccines will defeat.
This makes as much sense as shaving your hair off to keep from going bald, but it’s how many doctors now talk about pediatric COVID.
Dr. Suzanne Humphries wrote an article titled “The Benefits of Having a Natural Measles Infection“, which claimed that measles treats kidney disease and cancer. “Why not just let wild measles circulate and do the job nature intended at the time of life it was intended, which leads to 65 years of immunity and no need for life-span vaccination?”, she asked. How would the authors of “Should We Let Children Catch Omicron?” answer this question, I wonder. Many “pro-vaccine” doctors merely substitute “measles” for “COVID” in that sentence, and demand this be taken seriously.
There’s even a children’s book celebrating measles. The blurb on the pro-virus book Melanie’s Marvelous Measles says,
Melanie’s Marvelous Measles was written to educate children on the benefits of having measles and how you can heal from them naturally and successfully. Often today, we are being bombarded with messages from vested interests to fear all diseases in order for someone to sell some potion or vaccine, when, in fact, history shows that in industrialised countries, these diseases are quite benign and, according to natural health sources, beneficial to the body.
The idea that vaccine-preventable diseases are “natural and healthy” appeals to many people. Unsurprisingly, parents who have been mislead by pro-virus doctors occasionally seek out diseases for their children, even after vaccines were available. According to a news report from 2019,
Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky said this week that he and his wife made sure all nine of their children got chickenpox. “Every single one of my kids had the chickenpox,” Mr. Bevin said in an interview on Tuesday with a radio station in Bowling Green, Ky. “They got the chickenpox on purpose because we found a neighbor that had it and I went and made sure every one of my kids was exposed to it, and they got it. They had it as children. They were miserable for a few days, and they all turned out fine.”
A report on a recent measles outbreak was titled “Low Vaccination Rates and ‘Measles Parties’ Fueled 2019 Measles Outbreak in NYC”
Reasonable doctors used to discourage parents from exposing their unvaccinated children to such viruses. Before the pandemic, only anti-vaccine quacks would extol the benefits of sick children. Things are very different now.
It’s true that diseases like COVID and chickenpox are more benign for children than adults. In a fantasy world where natural immunity leads to permanent immunity and vaccines didn’t exist, exposing children to these viruses may be defensible. Moreover, no one would suggest that it would be healthy for a child to grow up in a completely sterile environment. However, there’s no evidence that any particular vaccine-preventable disease -not chickenpox, not measles, not HPV, not COVID- is beneficial for children, nor is there evidence that it’s beneficial when children feel sick and rotten.
And this brings us back to the statement by Drs. Prasad and Krug. They wrote about letting children get Omicron and said, “For children, getting sick and recovering is part of a natural and healthy life.” They haven’t written Carla’s Crazy Cool COVID yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time. At least traditional anti-vaxxers have the courage to claim that sick children are lowering their cancer risk or ridding themselves of “unwanted toxins or other substances”. Drs. Prasad and Krug merely say getting sick is part of a “natural and healthy life” without saying what is so beneficial about the whole process.
Like Ms. Margulis, Drs. Prasad and Krug want their readers to believe that just because something is natural, it must also be healthy. This is a very effective marketing technique, famously expressed by Gwyneth Paltrow who said “I don’t think anything that is natural can be bad for you.” While the immune response triggered by both the vaccine and the virus is completely natural, the idea that viruses are beneficial because they are “natural” and vaccines are dangerous because they are “unnatural” is one of the central tenets of the anti-vaccine movement. Perhaps if Dr. Prasad hadn’t thought it was beneath him to learn about the naturalistic fallacy in relation to vaccines, he might not sound exactly like Ms. Margulis and other anti-vaccine doctors today.
Moreover, like Ms. Margulis, Drs. Prasad and Krug chose to say being “sick” was natural and healthy. I hate having a sore throat, muscle aches, a headache, and fever. Don’t you? In an article about “COVID centrist” doctors such as Dr. Prasad, Lydia Greene wrote,
Often an antivaxxer will just look at mortality rates and completely gloss over morbidity associated with vaccine preventable disease. These “centrist” doctors do the very same thing. My 3 year old caught covid before being vaccinated. He developed viral conjunctivitis, GI pain, ear infection, and pneumonia. He did not die. Although without medical intervention his mortality risk would have definitely been substantially higher. His vaccinated family had a much milder disease course by comparison. According to these centrists, I should not have vaccinated his siblings for covid at all. After what we went through with my youngest who is a healthy and energetic young boy, I beg to differ. Vaccines prevent suffering regardless of age. I am so glad the rest of us were vaccinated for covid, and when it did become available for my youngest, I jumped at the opportunity.
Most children don’t get seriously ill from COVID, but if the vaccine can limit these symptoms for some of them- and the vaccine can lower SARS-CoV-2 infections – that’s not a bad thing, is it? After all, Dr. Prasad, who has different standards for harms caused by the virus versus those caused by the vaccine, used such symptoms to argue against the pediatric vaccine, saying it could cause,
About maybe 14,000 kids suffering grade three fevers, and maybe 880 suffering grade four fevers, which is more than one day. And I guess when you add in the myalgia, when you add in the arthralgia, when you add in the sort of headache, the fogginess, all these things, I mean, I think you have a tough sell.
Of course, COVID can cause all of this and much more. Over 140,000 children have been sick enough to need hospital level care, some intubated in the ICU. We have to be humble about the possibility of long-term sequelae. Neurological complications are not rare in hospitalized children. Moreover, the virus killed over 1,750 children. Getting sick and recovering wasn’t part of a natural and healthy life for them, and this number would have been lower had more children been vaccinated.
Just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Doctors should know this already.
Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist based in New York City who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19.
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Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist based in New York City who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19.
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