Measles does not prevent cancer – debunking another anti-vaccine trope

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There’s a ridiculous anti-vaxxer trope, that getting measles can prevent cancer, that’s been circulating for a while. Of course, it was pushed by members of the disgraced Trump White House, so it has the same credibility as that White House showed for any science whether it was the COVID-19 pandemic or climate change.

Of course, your favorite ancient feathered dinosaur is here to correct this issue – a measles infection is not going to prevent any of the 200 or more cancers that afflict humans.

measles cancer
Photo by Thirdman on Pexels.com

Why do the anti-vaxxers think that measles prevents cancer?

As I’ve written dozens of times, anti-vaxxers look for anything that supports their predetermined conclusion – that’s one of the signs of pseudoscience. Real science develops conclusions based on ALL of the evidence that derives from the scientific method.

I have no personal investment as to whether vaccines are safe and effective, although I am thrilled that they are. My only concern is what the evidence tells me, and it’s overwhelming – vaccines are safe and effective, that’s settled science.

On the other hand, the anti-vaxxers want to believe something, anything, that will “prove” that vaccines are not safe, not effective, or not useful for health. Thus, they promote the trope that a measles infection can prevent cancer. 

Before we start, here’s a big hint. If anyone says that they have the miracle prevention or miracle cure to cancer, then stop, take a deep breath, and laugh. Laugh very loud and very.

Cancer is not one disease, it is 200, probably a lot more, different diseases with different etiologies, different pathophysiologies, different treatments, and different outcomes. There’s really no similarity between cancers except for the phenotype – excessive and uncontrolled growth of cells. There never will be one cure to cure them all. 

This strange belief is based on a “study” published 20 years ago in the Medical Hypotheses,  which at that time was not peer-reviewed. The journal was well known as a garbage dump for whacky ideas in medical science like HIV-AIDS denialism. Furthermore, the “research” was performed by anthroposophic doctors in Switzerland. 

Furthermore, the study wasn’t a high-quality case-control or retrospective cohort study. It was a questionnaire, which is subject to massive confirmation and observation biases along with memory issues. This type of study is considered quite low on the hierarchy of biomedical research.

Anthroposophic medicine is an alternative medicine that utilizes occult ideas to make it appear they have something more than science-based medicine. Dr. David Gorski, who addressed the appearance of this junk medicine at his alma mater, the University of Michigan Medical School, made a key observation about this pseudoscience:

Many illnesses, especially benign ones, should not be artificially prevented, but should be allowed to occur and be treated and healed. The patient thereby gains strength and experience, both biologically and spiritually. [This would appear to be the basis for so many anti-vaccine beliefs that permeate every aspect of anthroposophic medicine and the education taught in Waldorf schools. After all, what is vaccination, but preventing illness? I guess your kids get so much stronger, spiritually and biologically, if you just let them, take their chances with measles, mumps, whooping cough, and Haemophilus influenzae type B. Because, you know, that worked out so well for children in terms of childhood mortality back in the days before vaccines could prevent these diseases. Oh, wait. No it didn’t.]

Maybe it’s not obvious to everyone, but it is to me. Of course, an anthroposophic doctor would think that getting a measles infection would prevent cancer because that fits into their bias about their view of medicine.

However, let’s put it this way – if someone had real evidence that a measles infection reduced the risk of any of the 200 or more different cancers, then it would be published in any of 100s of highly respected journals with that research repeated over time. And there would be hundreds of articles discussing how measles prevents cancer. But that hasn’t happened.

measles prevents cancer
Cute child with good taste in music should be protected from measles. Credit: Sharon Garcia @_sharon_garcia at Unsplash

What does science say about measles prevents cancer?

Well, science does say something, but not quite in the way the anti-vaccine radicals would want you to think. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that a measles infection could be linked to some cancers:

Are any of these studies convincing? Not really, but they are intriguing. And they are much more powerful (and published in highly respected journals) than the garbage study published by anthroposophic doctors. 

Since I’m a real scientist I’m not going to say that the measles vaccine will prevent cancer. But I could if I followed the same ethical standards as the anti-vaccine crackpots. 

Of course, there are vaccines that do prevent cancer. The HPV and hepatitis B vaccines certainly prevent cancer. 

There are a couple of other research studies that may have contributed to the anti-vaccine nonsense that measles prevents cancer. Some scientists have developed a method to carry molecules that kill cancer cells to those cancer cells with an engineered measles virus, but that’s not the measles virus that circulates in the wild. It’s altered to do a specific job – carry a cancer-killing molecule to the cancer site

And there is an ongoing clinical research effort where another bioengineered measles virus, again not the wild type virus, may be useful in treating some types of cancer. 

Let me repeat myself, just in case it’s not clear. Neither of these measles viruses is what your children (or yourself) would encounter circulating in the current measles outbreaks. They are measles viruses that are genetically engineered to do a very specific job – kill cancer cells.

Also, they’re genetically engineered, and we know what anti-vaxxers think of GMOs.

Let’s remember what measles does

On the other hand, measles does actually cause some serious complications:

  • death
  • hospitalization
  • encephalitis
  • SSPE
  • pneumonia
  • seizures

And the MMR vaccine prevents all of these complications. 

Summary

Anti-vaxxers are sharing a solid lie about measles. Getting the virus does not prevent cancer unless you accept the results of a bunch of pseudoscience-pushers who put together a garbage study then published it in a garbage non-peer-reviewed garbage journal.  

There is no robust, repeated, high-quality evidence that has ever shown a causal link between measles infection and preventing cancer. None.

In fact, there is some weak evidence that measles infection is linked to certain cancers – a link that, along with the known serious complications of measles, should be enough to make parents reconsider any thought that measles is some harmless disease. It is not. 

Measles is a dangerous and deadly disease. And the measles vaccines prevent that.  

Citations


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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!