Remember that scare in 2009, when the swine flu (H1N1) broke out and everyone was rushing to clinics? They were worried about this new, terrifying virus and hurried to get the vaccinations that would protect them from it. And the vaccines did just that; with the help of the H1N1 vaccinations, 300 lives were saved, and roughly 1 million illnesses and 6000 hospitalizations were prevented. But what are vaccines and how do they help us?
What are vaccines?
Vaccines are preparations of agents that look like disease-causing microorganisms. These agents are considered antigens, which basically means they are something that is foreign, or unfamiliar, to our immune system. The antigens in vaccines are usually just parts of a microorganism, a dead microorganisms, or live microorganisms that have been altered to be harmless.
How do vaccines work?
The purpose of using vaccines is to familiarize your immune system to microorganisms you have yet to encounter so that it will be able to learn how to recognize this new antigen and how to attack it so that it doesn’t cause further damage to your body. Since the vaccines don’t contain the real, health-threatening organisms, when you’re injected with the vaccine, you won’t show any symptoms.
Vaccines are basically a test run for your immune system to learn how to protect you from different dangerous organisms. The cells of the microorganisms (in the vaccines and in real life) have proteins on its membranes that will allow your immune system to recognize them. Your immune system will recognize these injected cells as antigens and try to figure out a way to attack them. Different cells have different properties, so there are several ways for your immune system to dispose of these foreign agents.
Your immune system will eventually figure out a way to destroy the antigens and will keep this whole trial in its memory. It will remember two things:
- What it found during the test run: the cells of the microorganism, any particular proteins on the cell surface, etc.
- How it dealt with the organism to ensure your safety
It then applies that knowledge when you’re exposed to the real organisms. This artificial immunity is long-lasting, which is why it’s preferred for new dangerous diseases.
Your doctor provides you with a list of vaccinations you should be getting at certain ages, it’s in your best interest to make sure you’ve gotten them all!
Roos, R. 2013. CDC: Pandemic vaccine prevented 1 million cases, 300 deaths. CIDRAP.umn.edu. <http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/cidrap/content/influenza/swineflu/news/feb0113panvax.html> February 28, 2013
Seeley, R.R., Stevens, T.D., and Tate, P. 2008. Anatomy and Physiology (8th ed.). pp. 818, 1012. New York: McGraw-Hill.