How do vaccines work?

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Vaccinations can hurt
A vaccination may hurt but the concensus is that vaccinations are vitally important
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Vaccines are dead or inactivated germs that protect you from the real McCoy

Each of us is born with a full immune system, which fights off viruses and bacteria. When a germ enters your body, your immune system sees it for what it is: the enemy. The immune system recognizes germs as a foreign invader or antigen that has no business being in the body. If your immune system is healthy, it will produce antibodies to fight off germs. A fully functioning immune system can produce millions of antibodies, fending off attacks every day. We are not aware that this is happening, but it is.

Memory cells stick around long after the antibodies have done their work and disappeared. These remarkable cells recall the original antigen and defend against it if the antigen re-surfaces and attempts to re-infect an individual. This protection is called immunity.

The goal of a vaccine is to allow the recipient to develop an immune response without developing any symptoms of infection. Viruses are intentionally weakened when the vaccine is made so that when the virus in the vaccine enters the human system the virus reproduces very poorly, meaning the viruses are not capable of causing disease.

Vaccines are effective against specific germs, and not against many common viruses that produce mild illness, like the common cold. Over-the-counter medications can combat mild sicknesses that are not prevented by vaccination.



When you receive a vaccine in your muscle or fatty tissues, the vaccine antigens contained in the shot are not powerful enough to produce signs of the disease or symptoms; however, there are reported exceptions. The antigens in a vaccine are either greatly weakened or killed. The antigens are strong enough to prompt the immune system to produce antibodies against the antigens that cause disease.

When a child encounters the disease that he has been innoculated against, the memory cells remain in the body and prevent re-infection, allowing the child to develop immunity without actually suffering through the disease. After being vaccinated, the memory cells can last for a lifetime. Vaccinations are an integral part of maintaining health and wellness.

A natural virus can reproduce itself thousands of times, whereas a vaccine virus produces itself fewer than 20 times. However, the vaccine replicates the natural disease well enough to induce memory B cells, which protect against infections in the future.

When a pharmaceutical company manufactures a vaccine, the viruses are killed (inactivated) with a chemical. These killed or weakened viruses are still seen by the body, which prompts the immune system cells to protect against the disease. Several doses of vaccine may be needed to achieve full immunity. Some vaccines are administered with a regular schedule of boosters.

When creating the HPV and hepatitis B vaccine, one part of the virus is removed from the natural virus and used as the vaccine. Diphtheria, pertussis and the tetanus vaccine are made by removing the toxins, which are harmful proteins, from the natural disease and inactivating them. When the toxin is inactivated it is called a toxoid. The toxin can no longer cause harm.

Another method of making a vaccine entails using the polysaccharide or sugar coating of the bacteria. Protection from a particular disease is achieved due to immunity to the sugar coating and not to the whole bacteria. The influenza B or HIB vaccine and meningococcal vaccines are created this way.

Some vaccines use inactivated toxins because diseases that are caused by bacteria do so by producing toxins that invade your bloodstream.  The vaccines that contain dead or weakened germs of a disease germ know how to destroy germs that can be lurking around.

Children who are not immunized against deadly diseases, may not be capable of fighting off the germs if they are exposed. Many fatal diseases, like smallpox, have been virtually eradicated in countries with access to healthcare and mandated vaccinations.


The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: How Vaccines are Made

National Vaccine Program Office Vaccine Fact Sheets

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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