ACSH: Who Wants ‘Pox Parties’ for COVID?

Active immunity means your body’s immune system gets revved up and primed by previous infection or exposure to vaccine antigens, whether it’s the real thing, i.e., getting sick with COVID, or via exposure to a human-made varietal from a vaccine (mRNA or conventional). Yet, somehow there’s this hue and cry that getting the real thing just isn’t as good as getting jabbed. Is it true? 
Image by Alexey Hulsov from Pixabay

Of course, the downside with relying on naturally acquired immunity (and forgoing vaccination) – is that you must first get COVID. But now that there’s Paxlovid, who cares? Right?

Anti-Vax Propaganda: Minimizing Disease Risk and Maximizing Vaccine Dangers

Immunity works the same way whether it's naturally or vaccine-acquired: After manufacturing antibody cells to attack the viral culprit, the body stores the schematic for the antibody (via memory cells), ready to be activated should you get exposed again. Those memory cells are no different, whether manufactured in response to infection by nature’s own virus or simulated by a laboratory variant.

However, COVID vaccines are far from perfect for the omicron variant, which seems to evade vaccine-generated antibody protection, even as vaccines are quite effective against earlier variants.  But boosters, especially the latest versions, vastly increase vaccine protection– even against the newest omicron variants:

“Phase three trials with the protein nanoparticle vaccine NVX-CoV2373 have been observed to be 90% efficient against symptomatic [omicron variant] infections and 100% efficient against severe coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)’”

So, even if you sicken with omicron, vaccination plus boostering predicts a significantly less severe disease [1], especially for those over 65, and lowers viral load, lessening transmission risk to others. However, all COVID vaccine effectiveness wanes over time.

So, maybe you should go “natural” and get your COVID immunity from a bout of COVID. (Of course, naturally acquired immunity isn’t perfect either. I know people who’ve gotten COVID twice). 

This recalls the infamous ‘pox parties’ of earlier years (encouraged by the anti-vax industry), where parents intentionally exposed their children to chicken pox or measles believing the disease wasn’t so dangerous, and of course, the vaccines were – at least according to the anti-vaxxers.

Indeed, this practice tracks the three-pronged message forming the tactics of the anti-vax industry[BB5] :

  • The vaccine is not effective, and it’s dangerous, 
  • The disease is not dangerous (and certainly not in the young), and
  • Don’t trust anyone (but us anti-vaxxers).

Should you get vaccinated or boosted?

Many who are vaccine resistant are simply not afraid of COVID. They would rather risk the disease than get vaccinated, or once having contracted the disease, they believe they are fully protected from further effects.

Can the vaccine-resistant who aren’t politically brain-washed or conspiratorially inclined [2] be persuaded that COVID is, in fact, dangerous and that it’s better to get vaccinated than to get sick?  Maybe.

But according to health law professor Ana Santos Ruchtsman, countering the social media message of anti-vaxxers is notoriously difficult and time-intensive. It is far easier (and faster) to put out disinformation than to right the wrong. And all the while, even if persuasion can be accomplished in this sub-cohort, the dangers of the disease affect the rest of the populace. [3]

As to the dangers of COVID, even the milder omicron variety, a new threat is emerging, ignored by those thinking getting sick is better than vaccination: Long COVID.

“Long COVID is not going to be going away,”

-Dr. Igor Koralnik, chief Neuro-infectious diseases, Northwestern Medicine

Between 15% to 30% of COVID sufferers develop Long COVID. Of the nearly 24 million adults in the U.S. who currently have long COVID, more than 80% have some trouble carrying out daily activities. Four million are out of work. The condition lasts for months or even years. (Peer-reviewed research reveals it lasts a median of 15 months.) On average, “long COVID reduces overall health by 21%, similar to total deafness or traumatic brain injury.” It currently has no treatment.

Long COVID is not a disease of the elderly; the average age in one large study was 51, another reported it was 43 years old. Children can get long COVID, too. A 2021 study suggested that more than half of children between ages 6 and 16 had at least one symptom that lasted more than four months.

It is possible that it [brain damage] is reversible. But it is still relatively scary because it was in mildly infected people.”

 Gwenaëlle Douaud, associate professor Clinical Neurosciences, Oxford 

Nor is it limited to severe cases; even mild cases produce lasting brain damage and heart complications.  One study revealed that cardiac risk is “substantial” for at least a year after developing COVID and remained elevated, even for people who were not hospitalized and did not have severe COVID.

It makes me sad

In addition to severe debilitation, long COVID is associated with severe depression, both directly and indirectly, significantly increasing prescriptions of anti-depressive medication. In addition to waking every day feeling ill, long COVID itself might cause brain inflammation, causing mental disturbances.

One report linked Long COVID-related depression to rising suicides.  Survivor Corps, an advocacy group for long COVID patients, said 44% of its members have considered suicide. Exit International, a euthanasia-assistance group, has been providing advice to Long COVID sufferers on procuring medically assisted deaths.

The impact on others isn’t limited to the actual transmission of infection but to the impact of the disease on family members. “Nearly two-thirds of family members of COVID patients in ICU show signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Perhaps of most significance is not only does the vaccine lessen one’s chances of contracting the disease, but even if you do, it reduces the risk of getting Long COVID by over 33%.

The seeping spread of the “disease isn’t dangerous” message

The impact of the message that vaccine-preventable diseases aren’t dangerous has ramifications and is itself dangerous.

During the 2018-2019 measles epidemic, the anti-vax industry attacked the Rockland County community, the epicenter of the American outbreak, bombarding it with literature, robocalls, and conferences.[4] Efforts to counter or neutralize the three-pronged message of the anti-vax industry, including that the disease isn’t dangerous and the vaccine is, were for naught. Neither local seminars nor the ambitious project of the Orthodox Nurses’ Association line-by-line refuted the anti-vax arguments, worked.  Vaccine resistance was entrenched. Not surprisingly, the childhood vaccine rate in the county decreased to 42%, the lowest in New York State.

Flash forward to COVID. COVID saw significant vaccine resistance in the same Rockland County, along with a penchant for hydroxychloroquine and disproportionately high deaths. The area was an early COVID “hot spot.”

“Polio is a joke. No one even had the virus in 50 years.”  

- A Rockland County Resident

Perhaps it is also not surprising that the first US polio case in a decade emerged in Monsey, a Rockland County township with among the highest positive COVID test rates. As to the reaction of the locals, echoing the entrenched anti-vax mantra that vaccine-preventable diseases aren’t dangerous, the vaccine-averse call polio reports “a hoax.” 

Pox-parties for COVID

Some intrepid (foolhardy?) Italians are paying for the privilege of exposure to COVID over a luxurious dinner (even as vaccines are now mandated for those over 50). The practice is commanding ridicule by experts:

“This uses the same logic as playing Russian roulette. For a person who has never had COVID, who has not been vaccinated, encountering this virus can mean a mild form of the disease, but it can also it mean ending up in intensive care…." 

-  Infectious Disease expert Pier Luigi Lopalco

For any remaining doubters, read the poignant story of a 56-year-old man who contracted COVID and killed himself after losing his health, memory, money, and social network. Vaccination may not have prevented his condition entirely – but if everyone else had been vaccinated, he wouldn’t have gotten sick at all.

In sum,

“The best way to prevent long COVID is not to get COVID in the first place.”

- Dr. Rajeev Singh, Piedmont Heart Institute cardiologist.

And the best way to do that is to vaccinate as many people as possible.


[1] Researchers noted that they “found high levels of 3rd dose VE [vaccine effectiveness] against hospitalization with the Omicron variant, in particular among older adults who are at greatest risk, and against more severe endpoints.”

[2] Data indicate that of the 27% of American adults who remain unvaccinated (not including the 60% who remain unboosted), 60% identify as Republicans. Per Klein’s work, that group is, by definition, unpersuadable. As for the remaining 17%– many victimized by anti-vax rhetoric -- stay tuned.

[3] Vaccines as Technology, Ana Santos Rutschman

[4] Barbara Pfeffer Billauer, Religious Freedom vs. Compelled Vaccination:  A Case-Study of the 2018–2019 Measles Pandemic- or The Law as a Public Health Response, 71 Cath. U. L. Rev. (2022).

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