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How Immunity Really Works
We are bombarded with claims that something will “boost the immune system” but the people who say that have no understanding of how the immune system really works. We have anti-vacciners who still deny the effectiveness of vaccines and the existence of herd immunity, and who imagine all kinds of hypothetical harms from vaccines, but who have little understanding of how vaccines actually work. So essentially majority of people don’t truly understand the actual depths of how the immune system works.
To put simply, the immune system is like the Goldilocks story: it can do too much, too little, or just enough. When it does too much, it causes autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and lupus. When it does too little, as in AIDS, it fails to protect the person from infections that are normally easily killed off with a healthy immune system. When it does just enough, it allows us to resist disease naturally and/or with the help of vaccines. It’s always good to have a yearly general health check-up.
The smallpox vaccine is one of the greatest success stories of science. Amazing how Jenner’s experiments with cowpox and inoculation paved the way for an effective vaccine. Soon after that a public health campaign by the World Health Organization achieved elimination of smallpox around the world in a short ten years!
Immune Response Takes Place In 3-parts
There are 3 main parts to the immune response: physical barriers (like the cilia and mucus in the airways that prevent bacteria from reaching and infecting their target cells), innate immunity, and adaptive immunity.
Innate immunity is a nonspecific defense mechanisms built-in response that depends on the capacity of highly conserved molecules to recognize certain important microbial factors. This part comes into play immediately or within hours of an antigen’s appearance in the body.
Toll-like receptors on the surface of macrophages recognize bacterial components and trigger a chain of biochemical responses in the cell that result in production of cytokines like interleukin-1 that mobilize other cells to destroy the bacteria and are also responsible for symptoms like fever and chills.
When bacteria get inside the cell, there are other recognition elements that stimulate the cell to produce more cytokines and recruit neutrophils that “know where to go” because they are attracted by chemokines secreted at the site of infection. Neutrophils ingest bacteria and secrete substances to kill them. When those neutrophils die, they release neutrophil extracellular traps (NETS) that catch and kill more bacteria. Infected cells also make interferons that help them control and destroy the bacteria.
These mechanisms all acting at the same time along with the physical barriers such as skin, chemicals in the blood, and immune system cells that attack foreign cells in the body. All of these events occur rapidly. When they are not sufficient to stop the infection, they still serve to reduce the numbers of pathogens long enough for the adaptive immune system to swing into action.
Adaptive immunity, also known as the acquired immune system or, as the specific immune system. This is the one most of us are more familiar with; it involves B lymphocytes that produce antibodies and T lymphocytes that provide cellular immunity. Along with a subsystem of the overall immune system that is composed of highly specialized, systemic cells and processes that eliminate pathogens or prevent their growth.
Vaccines are based on adaptive immunity. We can make antibodies to an unlimited number of different antigens. Adaptive immunity may sound simple in principle, but the reality is mind-blowing how complex it actually is. It is always good to have a general checkup yearly, just to get a snapshot of your updated health.
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