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04.24.2019

Kicking Off World Immunization Week 2019: How #VaccinesWork, Part 1

Welcome to World Immunization Week 2019 — April 24-30 — which aims to promote the use of vaccines to protect people of all ages against disease. The theme this year is Protected Together: Vaccines Work!

The Shot@Life Campaign is proud to introduce a three-part blog series on the efficacy of vaccines to honor this WIW theme.

How does the body fight illness?

To understand how vaccines work, it helps 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, called an 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 macrophages, B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes:

  • 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 antibodies to attack them.
  • B-lymphocytes are defensive white blood cells. They produce antibodies that attack the antigens left behind by the macrophages.
  • 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.

Vaccines help develop immunity by imitating an infection. This type of infection, however, almost never causes 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.

Make sure to check out the second part of the How #VaccinesWork series here!

  • Naomi Naik is the Communications Intern for Shot@Life and started working with the campaign this month. As a campaign intern, she helps support our communications team efforts at events, on our website, and on our social media channels.