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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the phrase ‘natural immunity’ misleads us about real risks and dangers

Antibodies to the coronavirus are not better just because they are ‘natural’

Vials and syringes of a coronavirus vaccine at a Culver City Fire Department vaccination clinic in California. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images)
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What began as a viral TikTok hashtag has infected every social media platform: Many of the proudly unvaccinated now identify themselves as #Pureblood.

Troubled observers have variously tied this term to the Harry Potter franchise (in which purebloods are Wizards untainted by muggle ancestry) and the eugenic Nazi fantasies of pure Aryan blood. But both comparisons miss the mark. The meaning of the hashtag is inseparable from vaccine refusers’ strong preference for “natural immunity,” a seemingly innocuous term that is actually a centerpiece of anti-vaccination ideology and ought to be abandoned immediately.

Although scientific authorities widely use “natural immunity” as a neutral description of immunity acquired through infection, it has different significance outside of medical journals. That’s because people often treat naturalness as synonymous with purity and goodness, even holiness. “God gave us a natural immunity,” said an announcer recently on Victory TV, a popular Christian network. “I personally choose God-given natural immunity over the new experimental vaccine for the safety and protection of myself and my family,” writes a chiropractor at Infinite Wellness Natural Healing Center. “How about you?”

The language of naturalness short-circuits clear thinking about vaccines, substituting a theological binary — natural immunity vs. unnatural immunity — for empirical evidence. The standard vocabulary of medical science thus unwittingly undermines the very public health goals it is meant to serve by implicitly endorsing immunity that doesn’t come from vaccines.

None of this should be surprising, since we’ve known about the relationship between “pure blood,” naturalness and vaccine refusal for more than a century. The historian Nadja Durbach documented examples from Victorian anti-vaccination movements that would be right at home on TikTok: a father who feared his vaccinated baby had not a “drop of pure blood in its body”; an 1885 anti-vaccine banner that read “Pure blood and no adulteration”; and activists who asserted that vaccination was “pollution of our veins.”

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For these Victorians, pure blood was “natural” and, by association, godly, because natural invoked the order ordained by God. The resulting ideology was, according to Durbach, a kind of “physical Puritanism” that granted vaccine resistance a divine mandate. Activists whipped up fear by describing vaccination as an “unnatural and dangerous” assault on the human body, unapproved by “Heaven’s will.”

The association of “pure,” “natural” and “good” would have made perfect sense at the time, since natural goodness and unnatural evil were standard in popular discussions of health. In his immensely popular 1867 book “The Philosophy of Eating,” homeopath Albert J. Bellows blamed all illness on impurity and in a chapter titled “Impure Blood” explained how good health depended on “natural food” and “pure water.” Illness was the result of “unnatural drugs or medicine.”

The same associations remained powerful in the mid-20th century, when opponents of water fluoridation complained about unnatural adulteration of what should be pure. Their position — described by social scientists at the time as “naturalist syndrome” — was so mainstream that Stanley Kubrick skewered it in his classic “Dr. Strangelove,” wherein the lunatic Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper bemoans how fluoride corrupts the “pure blood of pure Americans.”

And, unfortunately, the connection makes sense even in 2021. Virtually nothing has changed when it comes to our obsession with natural goodness, which isn’t limited to anti-coronavirus vaccination #purebloods. Parents afraid of “unnatural” immunity rejected free vaccines in favor of buying infected lollipops for chickenpox parties. Food marketers put “natural” wherever it’s legally defensible, recognizing its power to motivate consumers. Philosophers have even named an informal fallacy — “the appeal to nature” — after people’s mistaken tendency to confuse natural with good.

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Of course, natural does not mean good or safe. For most of human history, natural childbirth killed massive numbers of women, and still does in areas with limited access to unnatural hospitals. Natural selection worked its divinely mandated magic by killing off scores of infants. And acquiring “natural” immunity to the coronavirus means getting sick in the first place, an experience far riskier — for oneself, one’s loved ones and one’s community — than the “unnatural” vaccines developed to protect against it. But accustomed as we are to equating natural with good, it is easy to overlook the many ways it is not.

If a term has counterproductive associations, public health officials should adjust their use of it accordingly. The World Health Organization already does this with the names of infectious diseases, advising that linking them to food or nation of origin can create “unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people.”

It is similarly unwise to associate, even inadvertently, certain forms of immunity with purity and divine mandate, implying that other options are impure violations of heaven’s will. Doing so leads, as it always has, to irrational fear of vaccination and a preference for anything understood as natural, from protective concoctions of elderberry and echinacea to actual infection. There are many accurate alternatives: virus-induced immunity vs. vaccine-induced immunity, for example. Medical and scientific authorities have every reason to adopt them until the time comes when naturalness is no longer associated with fantasies of pure blood.