There has been a lot of discussion and debate lately regarding vaccines, and more specifically the use and safety of the Covid-19 vaccine. So, what are vaccines, how do they work, and most importantly how do they help people?
Vaccines are one of the safest and most effective ways to protect yourself, your family, and your children against infectious diseases. The technology and scientific knowledge in perfecting safe, effective vaccines has advanced since the start of their common usage in the 1930s against such diseases as Diphtheria, Tetanus, Cholera, Plague, Typhoid, Tuberculosis (TB). The middle of the 20th century continued to be a time of rapid growth in vaccine research and development with many life-saving discoveries and innovations such as the development of the vaccines against Smallpox, Polio, Measles, Mumps, and Rubella. Due to these discoveries and innovations these diseases such as Smallpox and Polio, which had been devastating for centuries to families and communities around the world, are now mostly or entirely eradicated globally due to active, on-going disease reduction vaccination and education campaigns.
The body has many mechanisms for protecting and defending itself from disease-causing organisms, sometimes called pathogens. Organisms that can be considered pathogens are viruses (such as Covid-19), parasites, bacteria, and fungi. These body defense mechanisms include mucus, skin, and cilia (miniscule bronchial hairs which protect the lungs from debris) and they act as barriers which help prevent the pathogens from entering the body.
However, when pathogens do enter the body, the body erects defenses through its immune system which works to identify, attack, and destroy the pathogens. The immune system creates antibodies which act as soldiers for the immune system. It is these antibodies that will in the future recognize the antigens of any specific pathogen and will work to destroy them to help prevent future illness associated with that pathogen.
Vaccines work by helping the body develop immunity by imitating the infection produced by the various pathogens like the flu, chickenpox, Covid-19, HPV, whooping cough, or measles. The imitation infections induced by vaccines causes the body to create antibodies. Periodically, after receiving a vaccine, the imitation infection can cause minor physical symptoms such as fever and achiness as the body builds immunity. These symptoms are normal and to be expected. Once this imitation infection subsides the body is left with a supply of new antibody producing memory cells which will remember how to fight the pathogen in the future. This is called having immunity.
On average it takes a few weeks for immunity to fully develop in the body after vaccination. Typically, more than one dose of most vaccines needs to be given. For some vaccines to attain full efficacy, for complete immunity, a carefully timed second dose is required (for example the MMR vaccine which provides protection against Mumps, Measles, and Rubella). With other vaccines, such as the DTaP which protects against Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis (whooping cough), their potency starts to wear off and ‘booster’ shots need to be administered several times through childhood in order to bring the levels of immunity back up. Finally, other vaccines, such as for the seasonal flu (Influenza), need to be given annually because the flu viruses mutate and will be different from year to year. These annual vaccines are formulated for what will be predicted to be the most common flu strains for that year. The Covid-19 vaccine will probably fall into this category of vaccine.
Up until the time the body gains full immunity from the vaccine for whichever pathogen it is supposed to protect from, it is still possible to get sick from the pathogen if exposed to it. However, without vaccines, getting exposed to the actual disease, the pathogen, could produce a real, full-strength infection in the body. Some people believe that acquiring immunity naturally, through actually getting the disease rather than getting vaccinated, is preferable and better because it is natural. However, most of these diseases can have severe, long-lasting, and potentially deadly consequences, especially for children who do not have fully developed immune systems or for people whose immune systems are compromised (for example those undergoing cancer treatments). It is difficult to predict who will get a serious infection requiring hospitalization and who will get a milder case.