You can still see the scar on my right shoulder, and I remember standing in line at the local Catholic Church with everyone else in my neighborhood. The year is a little fuzzy, 1974 maybe.
Polio (poliomyelitis) vaccines were being doled out to keep anyone from being stricken with the dreaded ailment that could turn a healthy, vibrant young child into, well, a crippled child. Poliomyelitis is a viral disease that affects the nerves and can cause partial or complete paralysis. I think the last cases of polio faded out to about zero in the late 1970’s thanks to the vaccine.
What exactly is a vaccine you ask? Well, a vaccine is, in simplistic terms, a weaker version of a disease that is introduced into your system, usually via an injection, that promotes you immune system into building a resistance for that particular disease. Your immune system has a memory of sorts that helps it to fight off an anti body that it recognizes.
In order for your body to be able to recognize any particular antibodies a doctor will inject a very small amount either into your vein or skin, or it may be an oral solution. It will not be enough to cause you to catch the disease but it may have side effects that are similar. Often when someone is given a flu vaccination they will have “flu-like” symptoms, (they will get the flu) but it will be a lesser level of infection and easier for your body to resist, and then afterwards your immune system will have a memory for that infection and be able to fight it off better.
The way your body fights off foreign bodies is by a specialized white blood cell called a macrophage, macrophage literally means “big eater”. These cells engulf and consume as much of the microbes as they can, they recognize the invading body by identifying an antigen that the invading microbe has that the macrophage recognizes as foreign to your body. The macrophage consumes the entire antibody except for this antigen, which it carries to a specialized organ called a lymph node.
This lymph node contains another specialized white blood cell called a lymphocyte; there are 2 types of lymphocytes, T cells and B cells. T cells, also called helper T cells, do not attack the microbe directly but will secrete a chemical signal that attracts the other cells to fight the foreign body (antigen). B cells (picture to the right) produce and excrete a specialized chemical called an antibody that attaches to a specific antibody to kill it.
This is all very general and basic, but it gives you the idea. To try put it in even more simple terms, a vaccine introduces a small amount of a foreign body into your system and this triggers specialized cells that are designed to fight off foreign bodies to create a chemical “weapon” if you will, to fight and destroy the foreign body. Once a foreign body has been introduced into your system specialized cells that basically learn, or have a memory, will attack the foreign body by identifying a specific marker on the foreign body and then excreting a chemical that destroys it.
Since the development of vaccines diseases that in the past were deadly are now virtually nonexistent. Some people fear that by doing this we are going to create stronger diseases because they will learn themselves to fight off our bodies natural immunities. This has yet to happen. Similarly though, due to over use and improper use of antibiotics, some infectious cells that can be deadly have developed a resistance to antibiotics because people do not take the entire prescription as directed but rather stop taking it when they feel better. You should always take the entire prescription if given antibiotics.