Immunology and Vaccine-Preventable Diseases
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Immunology is a complicated subject, and a detailed discussion of it is beyond the scope of this text. However, an understanding of the basic function of the immune system is useful in order to understand both how vaccines work and the basis of recommendations for their use. The description that follows is simplified. Many excellent immunology textbooks are available to provide additional detail. Immunity is the ability of the human body to tolerate the presence of material indigenous to the body (“self”), and to eliminate foreign (“nonself”) material. This discriminatory ability provides protection from infectious disease, since most microbes are identified as foreign by the immune system. Immunity to a microbe is usually indicated by the presence of antibody to that organism. Immunity is generally specific to a single organism or group of closely related organisms. There are two basic mechanisms for acquiring immunity, active and passive. Active immunity is protection that is produced by the person’s own immune system. This type of immunity is usually permanent.
Passive immunity is protection by products produced by an animal or human and transferred to another human, usually by injection. Passive immunity often provides effective protection, but this protection wanes (disappears) with time, usually within a few weeks or months.
The immune system is a complex system of interacting cells whose primary purpose is to identify foreign (“nonself”) substances referred to as antigens. Antigens can be either live (such as viruses and bacteria) or inactivated. The immune system develops a defense against the antigen.
This defense is known as the immune response and usually involves the production of protein molecules by B lymphocytes, called antibodies (or immunoglobulins), and of specific cells (also known as cell-mediated immunity) whose purpose is to facilitate the elimination of foreign substances.
The most effective immune responses are generally produced in response to a live antigen. However, an antigen
does not necessarily have to be alive, as occurs with infection with a virus or bacterium, to produce an immune response. Some proteins, such as hepatitis B surface antigen, are easily recognized by the immune system. Other material, such as polysaccharide (long chains of sugar molecules that make up the cell wall of certain bacteria) are less effective antigens, and the immune response may not provide as good protection.
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