The month of August is time to think about Back To School and Sports Physicals, but it's also National Immunization Awareness Month. As such, we thought it could be helpful to provide you with the information below.
The following information comes from the CDC’s “Basic and Common Questions” portion under Vaccines and Immunizations. For more information on vaccines, vaccine-preventable diseases, and vaccine safety visit: www.cdc.gov/vaccines
Diseases that vaccines prevent can be dangerous, or even deadly. Vaccines greatly reduce the risk of infection by working with the body’s natural defenses to safely develop immunity to disease. The information below helps to explain how the body fights infection and how vaccines work to protect people by producing immunity.
The Immune System— The Body’s Defense Against Infection
To understand how vaccines work, it is helpful to first look at how the body fights illness. When germs, such as bacteria or viruses, invade the body, they attack and multiply. This invasion is called an infection, and the infection is what causes illness. The immune system uses several tools to fight infection. Blood contains red blood cells, for carrying oxygen to tissues and organs, and white or immune cells, for fighting infection. These white cells consist primarily of B-lymphocytes, T-lymphocytes, and macrophages:
Macrophages are white blood cells that swallow up and digest germs, plus dead or dying cells. The macrophages leave behind parts of the invading germs called antigens. The body identifies antigens as dangerous and stimulates the body to attack them.
Antibodies attack the antigens left behind by the macrophages. Antibodies are produced by defensive white blood cells called B-lymphocytes.
T-lymphocytes are another type of defensive white blood cell. They attack cells in the body that have already been infected.
The first time the body encounters a germ, it can take several days to make and use all the germ-fighting tools needed to get over the infection. After the infection, the immune system remembers what it learned about how to protect the body against that disease. The body keeps a few T-lymphocytes, called memory cells that go into action quickly if the body encounters the same germ again. When the familiar antigens are detected, B-lymphocytes produce antibodies to attack them.
How Vaccines Work
Vaccines help develop immunity by imitating an infection. This type of infection, however, does not cause illness, but it does cause the immune system to produce T-lymphocytes and antibodies. Sometimes, after getting a vaccine, the imitation infection can cause minor symptoms, such as fever. Such minor symptoms are normal and should be expected as the body builds immunity.
Once the imitation infection goes away, the body is left with a supply of “memory” T-lymphocytes, as well as B-lymphocytes that will remember how to fight that disease in the future. However, it typically takes a few weeks for the body to produce T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes after vaccination. Therefore, it is possible that a person who was infected with a disease just before or just after vaccination could develop symptoms and get a disease, because the vaccine has not had enough time to provide protection.
Some people believe that naturally acquired immunity—immunity from having the disease itself—is better than the immunity provided by vaccines. However, natural infections can cause severe complications and be deadly. This is true even for diseases that most people consider mild, like chickenpox. It is impossible to predict who will get serious infections that may lead to hospitalization.
Vaccines, like any medication, can cause side effects. The most common side effects are mild. However, many vaccine-preventable disease symptoms can be serious, or even deadly. Although many of these diseases are rare in this country, they do circulate around the world and can be brought into the U.S., putting unvaccinated children at risk. Even with advances in health care, the diseases that vaccines prevent can still be very serious – and vaccination is the best way to prevent them.