The Basics of Vaccination

Understanding Immunity 

The world is full of germs. To combat this, your body is equipped with numerous lines of defense: skin as an external barrier, mucus, and cilia (small hairs that prevent debris and germs from reaching the lungs). Sometimes, however, these external defenses are not enough to fight off the germs, resulting in a pathogen entering the body.  

Pathogens make you sick. Exposure to a pathogen, which include things like bacteria, parasites, fungi, or viruses, triggers the immune system to activate an immune response to them. Pathogens can be divided into numerous parts, but the part of relevance for vaccination and immunity itself is the antigen, which acts somewhat like a tag on the pathogen that makes it recognizable by your body’s immune system. 

Your immune system builds immunity to these pathogens by recognizing the pathogen and producing antibodies to fight against them. Antigens are where your body builds antibodies; this is the piece of the pathogen that is recognized by the body, and the part that antibodies are produced. Think of this as a nametag on the pathogen, that your body reads and responds to.  

Antibodies are like soldiers. Your body builds each one, and each antibody is equipped to recognize just one antigen. This means the body has thousands of antibodies, ready to identify the one pathogen they are equipped to recognize. When an antibody is activated, meaning it recognizes the antigen tag, it alerts the immune system to build more of itself so that the body can have enough soldiers to defeat however many pathogens have entered and multiplied within the body.  

 The more times you are exposed to a certain pathogen, the more antibodies your body will have for it. The more times said pathogen enters the body, the more antigens your body will contain that will be able to recognize it. The more antibodies you have for the pathogen ready-made, the quicker your body will be able to identify the pathogens and dispose of them.  


Why Vaccines Matter 

When an unrecognized pathogen enters the body, the body does not have any antibodies made that will be able to recognize it. This delays your body’s immune response, as your immune system will have to take the time to build new antibodies against the foreign pathogen.  

This is where vaccination becomes important, because a vaccine introduces a weakened form of a pathogen to the body that includes the blueprint for the antigen your body needs to fight it. Vaccination prompts your immune system to build the necessary antigens it needs to recognize the pathogens in the future, should your body encounter them.  

Vaccines exist so that your body can become best equipped to fight off the pathogens when you encounter them in the future. If the body encounters the real pathogen, it already knows and has the materials it needs to defeat it.  

Would you prefer to send your soldiers into combat blindly, or prepared for what they are about to face? That is exactly the question when it comes to deciding to receive a vaccine, and the answer is obvious.  

Some vaccines require you to receive numerous doses of it, given weeks, months, or even years apart. This is so the body continues to produce the needed antibodies to fight against it, and to develop what are called memory cells. These memory cells are the ones that sound the alarm to the immune system when the pathogen has been identified, as it recognizes the antigen, or the name tag. By building these memory cells, the body is best equipped to fight the pathogen, as they have memory of the pathogen and can quickly recognize it, sounding the alarm much sooner, when you become exposed to it. Without memory cells, your body is at a disadvantage for fighting the pathogen.  


What is Herd Immunity? 

Not everyone can become vaccinated. Those with weakened immune systems due (due to cancer, HIV, etc.) or who are allergic to some vaccine components are unable to get vaccinated with some vaccines. These individuals can still be protected from the specific pathogen if they live among many others that have the vaccine. When most of the community is vaccinated, the pathogen is less likely to transmit between individuals as many individuals will be able to quickly fight it off due to their immunity by vaccination.  

Therefore, the more individuals that vaccinate and become immune, the less individuals are going to become ill from the specific pathogen. Those that are unable to protect themselves with a vaccine for the previously mentioned reasons are less likely to be at risk of exposure when most people in the community have received the vaccine and are immune, because the pathogen cannot spread between individuals effectively. This concept is called herd immunity.  

It is important to recognize that no single vaccine can provide certain 100% protection from the pathogens, and herd immunity is not the end-all-be-all for those that cannot safely vaccinate. With herd immunity, however, these high-risk individuals are given extra protection they otherwise would not have, because those in their community are protected.  

Becoming vaccinated not only protects yourself, but others as well. If you are able to receive a vaccine, please do so. This is largely for your own personal benefit, but it is also for the benefit of those around you that cannot receive it.  


Recommended Vaccines for Cancer Prevention 

Some vaccines exist that are linked to decreasing your risk of cancer.  

Hepatitis B and hepatitis C both increase the risk of developing liver cancer. Having the vaccines for these diseases is recommended for high-risk adults, including those who are sexually active, those with STIs, those who use intravenous drugs, and healthcare or public safety workers who may be handling bodily fluids and may become exposed. Having the vaccines for hepatitis B and hepatitis C will significantly decrease your risk of liver cancer in addition to the other risks associated with hepatitis B and C.  

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer. It is also linked to other genital cancers, as well as squamous cell cancers of the head and the neck. This vaccine is recommended for those aged 11 and 12 but can be administered anytime between the ages of 9 and 45. Having the vaccine for HPV will significantly decrease your chances of developing cervical cancer, as well as the other diseases associated with it.