By Diya Ramesh (’23)
It’s 3:00 on a Friday, and you just got home from school. You pick up your phone to scroll through social media, when you decide that maybe you should stay up-to-date with world events instead. You turn on the TV, and over and over, you see discussions about vaccines. You’ve had plenty of vaccines before, but you start to wonder, “How do they really work?”. As the news plays on, you’re still confused, but read on to answer your own question. As you probably already know, vaccines are used to prevent diseases. This makes them especially vital to the field of medicine, as they don’t treat a disease. Rather, they are meant to ensure that you never become ill in the first place. Alright, that all makes enough sense, but you’re still probably wondering how that process actually works.
Well, it all boils down to your immune system. The immune system is comprised of everything in your body, such cells, tissues, and organs. In your body, there are two main categories within the immune system, which are innate and active immunity. The innate immune system is your body’s immediate response to any pathogen or substance that it views as harmful. This can include barriers that stop pathogens from entering (Like skin and mucous), along with certain cells and other measures that can destroy these pathogens. The active (also called adaptive immunity) immune system is quite different, as it is long-term. Essentially, when the body recognizes something that could be harmful (an antigen), it begins a process to destroy it. This occurs through antibodies, which can fight/alert the body to invaders. Antibodies correspond to specific antigens, so in the future, if the same antigen ever comes back to the body, your immune system will send out the correct antibodies to combat it. This is called immunity, as these antibodies help reduce the chances of becoming ill from the same pathogen. There is also passive immunity, in which people are given antibodies, instead of their own bodies creating them (this offers immediate aid, but it is not very long-lasting). A vaccine takes advantage of the adaptive immune system, because these germs can lead to a disease. However, vaccines use a killed germ (inactivated vaccines), a weakened germ (live-attenuated vaccines), or a part of the germ (this type of vaccine can go by various names). There are also toxoid vaccines, which utilize toxins that some disease-causing germs produce (the immune response is related to the toxin, not the whole germ). In general, the germ in the vaccine stimulates an immune response and allows your body to create the antibodies for the specific germ, but the germ is not in a state to make you ill. Overall, you gain immunity without having to develop the disease, making it a win-win for all. So, the next time you turn on the TV to watch the news, remember the power of vaccines and your amazing immune system.