Having viral infections throughout your life is common. Yup, you may have colds today and then recover after four days and again have colds the following month. It is common. But remember, there are other viral infections which are worse than common colds. In fact, these gruesome infections may complicate your underlying illnesses, and worse, may lead to death.
As much as possible, researchers are looking for ways to prevent and cure viral infections. Again, we can think of the pandemic COVID-19. As you may have heard, scientists all over the world are looking for a cure. Most of the times, you hear the term vaccine.
What do we know about vaccines? How do we create it? When should we get vaccinated? How do vaccines work? These are just some of the questions we usually have in mind. Let’s try to answer these questions.
What is a vaccine? How does it work?
Vaccines are used to prevent diseases, either bacterial or viral. It is a biological preparation that helps a body’s immune system to recognise and fight pathogens (disease-causing organisms), keeping us from the diseases they cause (WHO 2020).
Okay, so before I proceed to the explanation, let me define some terms first.
- Immune system – it is a host defense system that protect against diseases
- Pathogen – the disease-causing agent
- Antibody – also known as the immunoglobulin, which is produced by our body (by our immune system) to neutralize pathogens.
- Antigen – also known as the pathogen or anything that is not supposed to be inside our body.
- Immunization – a process whereby a person is made immune or resistant to an infectious disease (WHO 2020).
Okay, a bit of jargon terms here. Hmm, let me try to cartoonify them. (NOTE: I will only be explaining the simplest principle of vaccination. Other complex principles will be covered in the next coming posts.) Let me start on the main characters:
This is the IMMUNE SYSTEM. I will represent it here as the Police Headquarters.
Next would be the ANTIBODY. In this case, I will represent it here as the Policeman.
Finally, we have here the ANTIGEN, which is represented by a robber.
Okay, so how does each character play the part in demonstrating what vaccines are and how vaccines work? Let me share a very short story (and kinda a predictable one).
One day, a robber plans to rob the famous (and the only) bank in town, Bank Bank. He planned his strategies carefully, identifying all the entry and exit points of the bank. Alas! He was able to take all the money from the bank. His plan was a success!
Of course the Police Headquarters was alerted. Since they know that the town is quite big to look for one robber, they posted the picture of the robber, which they took from the bank’s CCTV, in every corner of the town.
If you will be in that town, you will see hundreds of these “WANTED” pictures of the robber. One fine day, the police saw the robber and successfully captured him. THE END.
Okay, so were you able to connect this story to how vaccines work? It’s quite easy. Let’s recap.
The robber entered the bank, took all the money and left the bank without being captured. Then, the Police Headquarters was alerted (maybe when someone called 911). Since the robber, at that time, was already hiding somewhere in town, the Police Headquarters simply made copies of the robber’s picture and posted all over town. By doing so, the whole town will be aware, making its capture easy.
Just like how vaccines work.
When a pathogen enters our body for the first time, we will feel weird (or maybe feel sick) (like when the money was robbed from the bank). This pathogen may enter different portals in our body (e.g., throat, nose, skin, etc.). Once the pathogen is inside our body, it may or may not immediately start causing diseases. Just like in the story, initially, the robber (pathogen) was not captured. The robber took the money, just like the pathogen gave us diseases. So as a response of our immune system (Police Headquarters), it will keep a profile of this pathogen so that the next time the pathogen enters our body again, the antibody (the police) can capture it right away.
This is the typical scenario. With this in mind, researchers created vaccines, which are made of weak pathogen. Yup, you read it right. Made up of the bad guy, the pathogen. But but but… this is a weak version of the pathogen. Most of these vaccines were injected when we were still babies. Why? So that our immune system will recognize them while we are still young. By the time the real pathogen enters our body, our immune system will recognize it quickly, antibodies will be produced and this antigen will be captured.
So that’s the concept of vaccination. This is the reason why babies have a required set of vaccines to be injected at an early age. Remember the polio era? Before, polio wiped out a huge population because people, at that particular time, did not know vaccines. But because of medicinal and research progress, vaccines were born.
It’s amazing right? Not only the concept of vaccines, but how amazing our bodies were built. Imagine, we have that capacity to recognize “unwanted organisms” in our body, as if we have built-in CCTVs and other hi-tech sensors to get rid of these pathogens. It’s like our body has the ability to heal on its own, so long as you provide yourself great nourishment.
So the next time you get vaccinated, please remember my story. Hope this helps you! Adios!