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Immunization—having immunity against diseases and infections through vaccination—prevents nearly 3 million deaths each year. Yet there are many misconceptions about vaccines, including how they work and why they are necessary. To help us understand how vaccines strengthen our communities, here are five fast facts you should know about vaccines and the immune system.
1. Our immune system allows us to battle known and unknown diseases
The human body is powerful. So powerful, in fact, that it comes with its own defense software: the immune system.
“The immune system has front line responders called white blood cells that travel the body to detect and destroy harmful pathogens such as viruses and bacteria,” said Ed Dix, PharmD., Director of Pharmacy for Inspira Medical Center Mullica Hill.
“For example, when a pathogen enters our body, white blood cells send signals telling our body to suit up—which usually involves sneezing, coughing, inflammation and/or fever. This is our immune system trying to rid our body of dangerous invaders and keep us healthy.”
2. Our body remembers disease-causing pathogens so it can protect us in the future
While fighting off germs is an essential responsibility of our immune system, it also has another important responsibility—it memorizes what the invaders look like and how to fight them in case we are exposed them again. This is known as the adaptive immune system.
“The adaptive immune system—which enters the battlefield after the first responders—is armed with special white blood cells called B cells and T cells. In addition to attacking the virus or bacteria, they store information about this invader so that if and when this pathogen comes back, the body knows how to destroy it—and without making the body as ill.”
3. Vaccines expedite the adaptive immune system’s response
“By injecting a weakened or killed form of the pathogen, or something that resembles it, the body builds immunity without being exposed to the germ that causes the actual disease. Simply, vaccines spark the body’s adaptive immune system so that in the future, our body doesn’t have to face invaders unarmed,” said Dr. Dix. “There are several types of vaccines. Each type is designed to teach our immune systems to fight off certain types of germs and prevent the serious diseases they cause.”
Information about the types of vaccines used to prevent different illnesses can be found here.
4. The COVID-19 vaccines are New, but Not Untested vaccine types
“The most important takeaway about COVID-19 vaccines is that they do not contain any live virus and cannot give you COVID. The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines provide the blueprints for our cells to make the COVID-19 spike protein (which is harmless), sparking a very robust development of immunity,” said Dr. Dix. “While the mRNA vaccine is a newer vaccine platform, it is not untested. Scientists have been studying mRNA vaccines for over a decade and no steps were skipped from a safety or efficacy standpoint. The same holds true for the other types of COVID-19 vaccines, which use proteins and genetic material from the virus to trigger a response and build immunity, without the risk of contracting COVID-19,” Dr. Dix explained.
5. Vaccines help us achieve herd immunity
While getting vaccinated helps protect you from known diseases, you play a very important role in an even bigger picture: helping to create herd immunity.
“When approximately 75 percent or more of our communities are vaccinated against an infectious disease like COVID-19, we achieve herd immunity, which makes it harder to spread and contract the disease,” said Dr. Dix. “And as previously mentioned, immunity can be built one of two ways: either getting the disease and recovering from it or getting vaccinated. However, studies have shown that being vaccinated against COVID provides longer-term immunity compared with those who have contracted COVID and developed a temporary immunity that begins to wane after 90 days. It’s worth repeating, vaccines are able to give us more sustained immunity without the potentially serious risks associated with getting COVID-19. ”