By: Siri Christiansen
February 2 2024
Source: Facebook/Screenshots (modified by Logically Facts)
U.K. social media posts are claiming that measles will protect children against cancer and heart disease, despite a lack of scientific evidence.
What’s the claim?
Several posts on Facebook (archived here and here) and X (archived here and here) are claiming that contracting measles is beneficial to children’s health and provides long-term protection against other illnesses.
“Nature designed children to routinely go through these processes for a reason,” one Facebook user writes in response to an X post that claims that measles offers protection to “more serious things” like cancer and heart disease later on.
Another Facebook user referenced three different studies from PubMed that suggest measles may provide a protective effect against cancer.
What’s the context?
This comes as information campaigns and announcements have been rolled out in the U.K. to encourage people to vaccinate their children against measles — which is on the rise across England and Wales despite having been declared eliminated in the U.K. in 2017. The number of suspected cases in the two countries has more than doubled in a year, from 735 in 2022 to 1,603 in 2023. Vaccination rates of children in England for 2022-23 were at 84.5 percent, which is considerably lower than the WHO target of 95 percent.
What are the facts?
The claim has gone viral before. In 2019, the wife of a top Trump official wrote on Twitter that childhood diseases “keep you healthy and fight cancer.” The same year, audience members at an anti-vaccination rally in New York were told that catching measles, mumps, and chicken pox can reduce your chances of getting cancer, heart disease, and strokes by 60 percent.
However, the claim doesn’t hold any scientific merit, according to medical researchers speaking to Logically Facts.
"There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that a measles infection provides protection against cardiovascular disease or cancer,” said Björn Olsen, professor and senior physician in infectious diseases at Uppsala University, to Logically Facts. “However, there are great risks of secondary infections such as pneumonia and meningitis in the aftermath of a measles infection.”
Jonas Ludvigsson, professor of clinical epidemiology at Karolinska Institutet and scientific secretary of the Swedish Society of Medicine, said the same: “There is no evidence that measles protects against cancer or cardiovascular disease. Certain viral diseases, such as HPV, can instead induce cancer. Viruses have sometimes been used as vectors, in other words, carriers for certain cancer medicines. [Measles] probably increases the risk of heart muscle inflammation.”
There are a few small medical studies available online that explore a potential link between childhood diseases and cancer, as referenced in social media posts, but this is not enough evidence. This is also stressed by one of the later articles on the topic, titled, “Childhood infectious disease and premature death from cancer: a prospective cohort study” and published in 2013 in the European Journal of Epidemiology: “further studies are required to confirm the specific associations identified,” the abstract concludes.
It should also be stressed that being listed on PubMed isn’t an indication of scientific legitimacy, as the database also includes articles from lower-quality academic journals. One of the measles-related articles cited on social media, titled “Febrile infectious childhood diseases in the history of cancer patients and matched control”, was published in 1998 in the journal Medical Hypotheses – a journal that accepts “radical, speculative and non-mainstream scientific” theoretical papers and has been criticized by HIV scientists for its inclusion of AIDS denialist articles and general lack of peer review.
Ludvigsson emphasized that there can be several explanations for the lower risk of cardiovascular disease found in some studies and compared it with studies that suggest measles protects against allergies.
“This is probably due to the fact that in an environment where you don't vaccinate, you have more infections overall, and in such environments, you have less allergy. So it is not measles alone that protects against allergy, but all possible infections. But if I had to choose between a slightly lower risk of allergy and dying from measles, I would rather survive – and vaccinate myself.”
There is not enough scientific evidence to support the claim that measles can provide long-term protection against cancer and heart disease. While some small studies have noted a lower prevalence of cardiovascular disease or cancer in patients who had measles as children, more research is needed to confirm the link, as there could be several other explanations in play. Therefore, we have marked it as false.