WHAT REALLY ARE VACCINES?

BY: VAIBHAVI MENON

A vaccine is a biological preparation that provides active acquired immunity to a particular infectious disease. A vaccine typically contains an agent that resembles a disease-causing microorganism and is often made from weakened or killed forms of the microbe, its toxins, or one of its surface proteins. The agent stimulates the body’s immune system to recognize the agent as a threat, destroy it, and to further recognize and destroy any of the microorganisms associated with that agent that it may encounter in the future. Vaccines can be prophylactic (to prevent or ameliorate the effects of a future infection by a natural or “wild” pathogen), or therapeutic (to fight a disease that has already occurred, such as cancer).

The administration of vaccines is called vaccination. Vaccination is the most effective method of preventing infectious diseases; widespread immunity due to vaccination is largely responsible for the worldwide eradication of smallpox and the restriction of diseases such as polio, measles, and tetanus from much of the world. The effectiveness of vaccination has been widely studied and verified; for example, vaccines that have proven effective include the influenza vaccine, the HPV vaccine, and the chicken pox vaccine. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that licensed vaccines are currently available for twenty-five different preventable infections. The terms vaccine and vaccination are derived from Variolae vaccinae (smallpox of the cow), the term devised by Edward Jenner (who both developed the concept of vaccines and created the first vaccine) to denote cowpox. He used the phrase in 1798 for the long title of his Inquiry into the Variolae vaccinae Known as the Cow Pox, in which he described the protective effect of cowpox against smallpox. In 1881, to honor Jenner, Louis Pasteur proposed that the terms should be extended to cover the new protective inoculations then being developed. The science of vaccine development and production is termed vaccinology. There is overwhelming scientific consensus that vaccines are a very safe and effective way to fight and eradicate infectious diseases. The immune system recognizes vaccine agents as foreign, destroys them, and “remembers” them. When the virulent version of an agent is encountered, the body recognizes the protein coat on the virus, and thus is prepared to respond, by first neutralizing the target agent before it can enter cells, and secondly by recognizing and destroying infected cells before that agent can multiply to vast numbers. Limitations to their effectiveness, nevertheless, exist. Sometimes, protection fails because of vaccine-related failure such as failures in vaccine attenuation, vaccination regimes or administration or host-related failure due to host’s immune system simply does not respond adequately or at all. Lack of response commonly results from genetics, immune status, age, health or nutritional status. It also might fail for genetic reasons if the host’s immune system includes no strains of B cells that can generate antibodies suited to reacting effectively and binding to the antigens associated with the pathogen.

Even if the host does develop antibodies, protection might not be adequate; immunity might develop too slowly to be effective in time, the antibodies might not disable the pathogen completely, or there might be multiple strains of the pathogen, not all of which are equally susceptible to the immune reaction. However, even a partial, late, or weak immunity, such as a one resulting from cross-immunity to a strain other than the target strain, may mitigate an infection, resulting in a lower mortality rate, lower morbidity, and faster recovery. Adjuvants commonly are used to boost immune response, particularly for older people whose immune response to a simple vaccine may have weakened.

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