Is Natural Infection Better Than Vaccination?

Paul A. Offit, MD, compares immune responses caused by natural infection versus vaccination.


Is natural infection better than vaccination?

Paul Offit, MD: Hi, my name’s Paul Offit. I’m speaking to you today from the Vaccine Education Center here at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. One question that parents commonly ask was, “Wouldn’t it be better to be naturally infected than immunized?” Or said another way, “isn’t the immune response that’s induced by natural infection better than the immune response that’s induced by immunization?”

The answer to that question is in some ways yes, the immune response induced by natural infection is sometimes better or longer lasting than immunization. The problem, however, is the price that one often has to pay for natural infection, which can be suffering, or hospitalization, or permanent disability, or death.

So I think the better question is, “Can we induce an immune response with immunization that’s good enough?” And, I think probably the best example for that would be a disease like measles. When you’re naturally infected with measles, you induce an antibody response against measles virus that’s probably about three fold greater than that that’s induced by measles vaccination. However, measles vaccination was good enough to basically eliminate measles from the United States by the year 2000. To eliminate that disease without having children suffer the permanent disability and death that could be a consequence of measles.

Actually, I think when people ask that question they’re sort of capitalizing on the good vibes that one has with the word “natural.” I’m not sure why the word “natural” has such a good reputation, frankly. Because Mother Nature can kill you. And she can do that with certain viruses or bacteria. The goal is to try and not let that happen.

Related Centers and Programs: Vaccine Education Center

Last Reviewed on Aug 11, 2015