Are unvaccinated children more healthy than vaccinated children?

There are many myths that undergird antivaccine beliefs, such as the myth that vaccines cause autism, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome, and basically anything antivaccinationists like to blame on them. Basically, if you believe antivaccinationists, there’s nothing bad thta vaccines can’t do to children. The flip side of this myth is perhaps the central myth of the antivaccine movement, which is that unvaccinated children are somehow so much healthier than vaccinated children and that fewer vaccines equates to better health. This one pops up time after time after time after time. It is also the central motivating belief behind frequent calls by antivaccine activists for a “vaccinated versus unvaccinated” study. These calls began with proposals for—I kid you not—a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children. When it was pointed out that such a trial would be completely unethical because it lacks clinical equipoise and that message finally sank in, antivaccinationists pivoted to wanting an epidemiological “vaxed versus unvaxed” study, even though the expense and challenges of such a study would be monumental and antivaccinationists wouldn’t believe a negative outcome anyway.

Of course, these “minor” setbacks haven’t deterred antivaccine advocates from trying to make their case. I remember the first time I saw it, now many years ago, when J.B. Handley and Generation Rescue actually paid a company to do a telephone survey on the health of unvaccinated children. Let’s just say that the design of the survey and wording of the questions were…not exactly rigorous. Hilariously, though, the survey actually showed some groups of vaccinated children were healthier than unvaccinated children. Even though it was a worthless telephone survey whose results meant nothing, it was hard not to laugh at how it backfired on Generation Rescue. And don’t get me started on an Internet survey administered by a German homeopath that didn’t show what he thought it showed. He wasn’t the first. Others followed. All generated data (if you can call it that) that turned out to be—surprise!—utterly worthless and unsupportive of the hypothesis that unvaccinated children are generally healthier. They do provide me with fun targets at which to direct some Insolence, though, along with opportunities to point out that the vaccine schedule is not only evidence-based, but safe and effective.

I was reminded of the “healthy unvaccinated child” myth last night when I came across a post on a website known as Stop Mandatory Vaccination. You can tell there’s going to be a lot of misinformation there when you see its tagline: “Vaccines don’t save lives, healthy immune systems do!” The post is entitled We Have Healthy Vaccine Free Children which basically aggregates comments made after a post on the group’s Facebook page:

Now, anyone with even the slightest bit of understanding will immediately realize that posting a question like this on an antivaccine Facebook page is what we would refer to as “stacking the deck.” The audience already believes that not vaccinating is healthier and that injecting what they view as all those nasty “toxins” is just about the worst thing in the world you can do to your baby, short of feeding him GMOs. So it’s not surprising that the responses were overwhelmingly positive, with parents bragging and exulting about how fantastically healthy, smart, and just generally awesome their children are.

For example here are three examples:

Tiffany Elizabeth: My daughters are both 100% vaccine free and are smarter and healthier than other kids in their class. Their teachers think they’re gifted and they get over any illness faster than any other kids. They’re smart enough to move up a class and are well above most of the class. The epitome of health and brains. No allergies, eczema, Asthma or behavioral issues of any kind.

Ingrid Johanns: 3 unvaxed boys 10, 7 and 3. Seriously healthy kids. I can literally count on one hand the number of times any of them have been “sick”- where they have had a fever and needed to stay in bed, etc. and not one of them has ever been sick for more than two days in a row. Typically they’ve gotten better within 24 hours. They all are way way healthier than the vast majority of my friends kids who are vaccinated. To give you an idea, my ex, asked me once why our kids are SO much healthier than his co workers kids who “all seem to have issues…” I told him it was because we don’t vaccinate. I truly believe that is why.

Brianna Kinney: I have 2 completely 100% vaccine free children – Ages 4 and 17 months. Neither have ever been sick besides the common cold once or twice, no food allergies, no seasonal allergies, no fevers, no ear infections, no attention disorders… both are extremely healthy and above average in absolutely everything.

Yes, for some parents, it’s not just enough to portray their unvaccinated children as being healthy and happy, but they have to be portrayed as healthier, happier, and smarter than all the other kids in their class. Of course, it never occurs to them that the reason these children are healthy has nothing to do with their not having been vaccinated. In fact, the reason they are healthy is because they are sponging off the herd immunity of their classmates who were vaccinated without their parents accepting even the minimal risk of vaccination. They would have been just as healthy, happy, and intelligent if they had been vaccinated. The key phrase in those three anecdotes is “I truly believe” because what we’re dealing with is belief, not science.

Not surprisingly, in the some of the anecdotes there is quite a bit of confirmation bias, which is the very human tendency to see what one wants to see. Basically, we human beings tend to be more likely to remember observations that fit into our preconceived beliefs and to forget observations that do not. As a corollary, when we can’t avoid remembering or confronting facts and observations that do not support our beliefs, we tend to make excuses.

For example, here’s some excuse-making:

Shanti Marie Bates: Three completely unvaccinated children ages 28, 25 and 21. None of my children have allergies of any kind, never had an ear infection. First two excellent health but number two child periodically gets shingles with stress. First and second had chickenpox and measles under age 5. Third and youngest grew up with colds off and on. Tried exposing to chickenpox throughout childhood but never got it. Haven’t titer tested her. She has struggled with emotional deregulation since birth, she’s now diagnosed bpd potentially bipolar, her biodad was bipolar and took his life, since she’s struggled since birth it may be genetics. Thank God I knew not to vaccinate her. If she’d try cutting out gluten dairy and inflammatory foods I believe she’d have a much stronger system.

So let’s see. Bates proclaims her unvaccinated children healthier, but one out of three of them, who is only 25, regularly gets shingles because she had chickenpox when she didn’t need to. I note that it’s unusual to get shingles that young, which suggests to me that maybe this child is not as healthy as Bates thinks. Another out of the three of them doesn’t sound as though she’s in perfect health either, having been diagnosed with probable bipolar disorder. Of course none of that can be Bates’ fault. Note how she points out that her biological father was bipolar and committed suicide, thus saying, in essence, it can’t be my genes; it’s the father’s genes. (Remember, one of the reasons why antivaccine parents hate research into the genetic causes of autism is because they can never, ever admit that it might have been their genes that contributed to their children’s autism. It had to be something external, obviously those evil vaccines ± GMOs and other “toxins.”) Be that at it may, notice the next part. Thank heaven Bates never vaccinated her, or she would have been worse, and, of course, it’s also her daughter’s fault because she won’t cut out gluten, dairy, and “inflammatory foods” (whatever that means) and therefore her immune system isn’t what it should be.

And here’s some confirmation bias:

Meg Annan: 3 kids, 2 are 100% vaccine-free. They are 3 and 3 months. Excellent health. My infant never got the cold that just went through our house. My 3 yo had it for a few days. My older son, 5, who had a few series of vaccines before age 1 still has a cough. He always gets sick first and stays sick the longest. My unvaccinated kids are healthier. They’ve never been on antibiotics and have no allergies. No asthma. No autoimmune disorders.

Jennifer Tyler: 2 of our kids are vaccine free and there’s no comparison of their health with their five other siblings who had vaccines. It’s something only you can see to believe. I will never put another vaccine into any of our children. I believe if others could see the health difference in the unvaccinated many wouldn’t vaccinate. When you know better you do better. 🙂

Ashley Cates: 1 out of 2 of mine are vaccine free. That one is super healthy, never had a concern except for colds and a couple ear infections as a toddler, which I attribute to the antibiotics she was given as a newborn. Chiropractic fixed that. My partially vaccinated one has had developmental delays, sensory processing issues, gastrointestinal trouble, tics… But he’s coming back around with good nutrition and avoiding toxic junk.

Denise Aguilar: I’m a mother of three. 17, 5, 2. My first two were vaccinated and injured from it. They have issues such as eczema, migraines, ear infections, sleep apnea and have trouble eating. My two year old is vaccine free. Never has had any of the above, never been sick minus the common cold that his body expelled without any type of medication. Eats amazing, loves his sleep and has excellent health. I have my own vaccinated vs unvaccinated study in my home.

You get the idea. Whenever it’s a “mixed” family (a family with vaccinated and unvaccinated children) the stories are all the same. The vaccinated children are sick, developmentally delayed, or otherwise chronically unhealthy, while the unvaccinated children are the very picture of health, often with the help of quackery such as “detox,” chiropractic, and homeopathy.

Here’s the most horrifying one (to me, at least):

Brittjay Jaybritt: I have an immunecompromised (heart transplant) one year old. He has been sick 2 times, same as me. He fights it off just like any normal kid… I was told he would be sick 8 to 15 times a year. thank You Jesus!

Holy hell! This is one of the most horrifying, irresponsible things I’ve ever heard, leaving an immunosuppressed child unvaccinated. Remember, immunosuppressed children can be vaccinated just like any other child, with one exception. They can’t receive live attenuated virus vaccines. But they should get everything else. For diseases against which they can’t be vaccinated, children like this rely totally on herd immunity, which antivaccine beliefs undermine.

I like to say that the plural of anecdotes is not data. This is particularly true when the anecdotes are taken from an obviously biased website. However, parents who come across such a website with parents so full of Dunning-Kruger and the arrogance of ignorance, they might reasonably wonder: What is the real story? Are unvaccinated children really healthier? Are there really no studies comparing the health of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children?

The answers to both questions are: No.

Of course, the primary health benefit of vaccination is one that the antivaccine contingent denies. Basically, children who are vaccinated against measles, pertussis, and all the other diseases we vaccinate against in the CDC-recommended schedule get measles, pertussis, and all the diseases we vaccinate against much less frequently than unvaccinated children do. As a reesult, they do not experience the suffering due to those diseases or the potential adverse consequences of such diseases, such as measles-associated encephalitis, or even death. Preventing these adverse health outcomes is the primary function of vaccines. This is summarized in a great article in the New England Journal of Medicine from three years ago and this nifty infographic (click to embiggen):

Vaccine infographic

But what about all the other bad things that vaccines supposedly cause (if you believe antivaccine activists)? Antivaccine activists seem to discount how vaccines prevent infectious disease because, thanks to herd immunity, they don’t see such diseases in their special snowflakes, even though by not vaccinating they put those snowflakes at a much higher risk of suffering from those disease. It turns out that there is no good evidence that the general health of unvaccinated children is better than that of vaccinated children. Actually, if anything, existing evidence suggests the opposite, that vaccinated children tend to be healthier. For example, contrary to what antivaccinationists claim, in a German study asthma incidence was actually lower in vaccinated children than unvaccinated. Another German study (damn those Germans!) found in a study population of 13,453 subjects that the prevalence of allergic diseases and non-specific infections in children and adolescents does not depend on vaccination status. While there are some studies that suggest an association between vaccinations and allergic diseases like asthma, for often the results are due to bias and overall there is no consistent set of evidence implicating vaccination as a cause of asthma or allergies. A study from the Phillippines found a strong association between being fully vaccinated and higher cognitive test scores.

I’m reminded of a post that I wrote about a study last year that examined the benefits of the MMR vaccine. It turns out that the measles vaccine go far beyond just protecting against measles, a benefit that’s not too shabby in and of itself. Basically, measles produces immunosuppression that lasts for a period of up to three years after a child suffers from it. During that time period, children are more susceptible to infections other than the measles. Preventing the measles decreases all cause mortality because fewer children develop life-threatening infections in the two or three year period after the measles, when they are immunosuppressed. As I said at the time, antivaccinationists like the ones posting to the Facebook page I referenced above belief that the MMR “damages” the immune system, but in reality if anything damages the immune system it’s the measles.

The bottom line is that antivaccinationists can post all the anecdotes, full of selective memory, confirmation bias, and excuse-making when their unvaccinated child isn’t perfectly healthy, that they want to, but they are not objective evidence and they are certainly not scientific evidence. That’s because scientific evidence is not on their side. There is no good evidence that unvaccinated children are healthier than vaccinated children. In fact, if anything, existing evidence suggests that vaccinated children are probably, by and large, healthier, even if you leave aside the not inconsiderable health benefit of being much less likely to catch the diseases vaccines protect them against.

Are unvaccinated children healthier than vaccinated children? The answer is clearly no. That is nothing more than a myth based on anecdotes and no scientific evidence peddled by antivaccinationists. Don’t fall for it.