How do vaccines actually work?

Our bodies are very intricate complex systems. We have a respiratory system, nervous system, digestive system, and many more. One of the most interesting though may be our immune system.

Our immune systems are used to fight off disease in our bodies. It fights off actual diseases that we may come in contact with, or diseases introduced to our bodies in hopes of creating a vaccine against the disease.

According to The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the human immune system is a complex network of cells and organs that evolved to fight off infectious microbes. Much of the immune system’s work is carried out by an army of various specialized cells, each type designed to fight disease in a particular way. The invading microbes first run into the vanguard of this army, which includes white blood cells called macrophages. The macrophages engulf as many of the microbes as they can.

The immune system keeps a supply of millions and possibly billions of different antibodies on hand to be prepared for any foreign invader.

The molecules on a microbe that identify it as foreign and stimulate the immune system to attack it are called “antigens.” Every microbe carries its own unique set of antigens, which are central to creating vaccines.

Vaccines actually mimic an infection. They teach the immune system how to attack an invader by mimicking a natural infection. For example, the yellow fever vaccine, first widely used in 1938, contains a weakened form of the virus that doesn’t cause disease or reproduce very well. Human macrophages can’t tell that the vaccine viruses are weakened, so they engulf the viruses as if they were dangerous. In the lymph nodes, the macrophages present yellow fever antigen to T cells and B cells.

A response from yellow-fever-specific T cells is activated. B cells secrete yellow fever antibodies. The weakened viruses in the vaccine are quickly eliminated. The mock infection is cleared, and humans are left with a supply of memory T and B cells for future protection against yellow fever.

When T cells and antibodies begin to eliminate the microbe faster than it can reproduce, the immune system finally has the upper hand. Gradually, the virus disappears from the body.

After the body eliminates the disease, some microbe-fighting B cells and T cells are converted into memory cells. Memory B cells can quickly divide into plasma cells and make more antibody if needed. Memory T cells can divide and grow into a microbe-fighting army. If re-exposure to the infectious microbe occurs, the immune system will quickly recognize how to stop the infection.

So, basically when a vaccine is introduced to the body’s immune system, the body has molecules that instigate an attack. After the attack is over and the diseased cells are eliminated, the body then creates a memory against the foreign body, and therefore in the future if the diseased is introduced again, the body automatically recalls how to fight against the disease.


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