These days, much of the talk is understandably about vaccines. Vaccines have been a hot topic for several years but, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust vaccines into the mainstream spotlight.
Even with all the discussions about vaccines, many people still don’t fully understand what vaccines are and what they can (and can’t) do. To help clear this up, we have put together a general explanation about vaccines.
Here, you will find more information about what vaccines are, their history, how they work, and more. This should give you a solid base of knowledge to help you understand exactly what people are talking about when they talk about vaccines. Here is what more people should understand about vaccines.
They Date Back to the 1700s
Vaccines, as we know them today, date back to the late 1700s. However, evidence suggests that the Chinese were using inoculation to stop the spread of communicable diseases up to 800 years earlier. Either way, the big breakthrough in vaccinations came in the 1790s when English physician Edward Jenner used material from cowpox pustules to protect people from smallpox.
Jenner is now considered the “father of immunology” after noticing that milkmaids who contracted cowpox were less likely to get the far worse smallpox. He was followed by other revolutionary vaccine creators including Louis Pasteur (rabies), Jonas Salk (polio), and Maurice Hilleman (40+ vaccines including measles, mumps, chickenpox, and hepatitis). Now vaccines are a very common form of medicine that has saved countless lives.
They Prevent, Not Cure
Vaccines are not a cure. They do not kill the virus (on their own) nor do they take the virus out of the body of someone who already has it. Vaccines are given to healthy people in order to either prevent the person from catching the virus or lessen the effects of the virus if they do catch it.
They Help the Body Create Antibodies
A vaccine begins its work when a certain quantity of antigens, or molecules from or similar to a specific virus, are injected into the body. These antigens effectively teach the body how to recognize the virus and how to create antibodies that will attack and kill the virus when it enters the body.
Vaccines contain a small amount or weak strain of the specific virus or a similar, less harmful one. Once vaccinated, the body will be ready for the next attack. When the virus comes for real, your immune system should ‘know’ how to quickly produce antibodies to aggressively attack the virus and kill it before it makes you sick.
They Have to Be Stored Carefully
Vaccines work because they contain living antigens that stimulate the body’s immune system to produce antibodies. In many cases, vaccines need to be kept very cold, from the time they are created and put in vials to the time they are injected into the patient. This creates a major challenge for vaccine distributors.
The temperatures at which vaccines are stored and transported are crucial and must be precisely monitored by those responsible for handling the vaccines in the supply chain. This guide from Dickson explains the many steps organizations who administer and distribute vaccines need to take to make sure that temperatures are correctly monitored.
If the temperatures are not correctly monitored and maintained, the vaccine can become ineffective and not perform its intended job. In extreme situations, not keeping the vaccines properly stored can make them unsafe for humans to use.
They Help Create Herd Immunity
Although vaccines don’t kill viruses on their own, as a cure would, they have played a major role in eradicating diseases through the concept of herd immunity. Herd immunity occurs when 60% – 70% or more of a population gets sick and becomes immune. Once that happens, the virus can no longer find enough hosts to spread it and it will die out.
This can happen after a huge percentage of the population gets sick – which with a deadly virus like COVID-19 is not ideal – or when that same percentage becomes immune through vaccination. This is why it is so important that most, if not all, people get vaccinated when an effective, safe vaccine becomes available.
They Have Eradicated Many Diseases
Herd immunity achieved through vaccination has, to a huge degree, helped lessen or completely eradicate many of the worst public health issues of our time. Today, we get vaccinated for all types of diseases that used to be major problems in the world but are now virtually non-existent.
These vaccinations include such diseases as diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, whooping cough, and others. Smallpox, once a global pandemic, has now been completely eradicated to the point we no longer get the vaccine.
They May Need a Boost
Many vaccines are not one-shot deals where everyone is completely immunized forever against the virus it is meant to combat. Often, a booster shot is needed in order to re-expose the immune system to the antigen it needs to create antibodies to fight the virus.
Some vaccines require a booster dose every few years to restock the body’s antibodies. This is the case for common vaccines such as tetanus, which has a booster shot that is recommended every 10 years. Other vaccines, such as certain polio vaccines or hepatitis B, require a booster dose after the initial dose to make a patient fully immune.
Right now, many of the COVID-19 vaccines that have reached the most advanced stages of testing require a booster shot. They seem to last a few weeks or a few months but require a second round for the benefits to take hold long term. After that, no one is quite sure how long they will last because the development has been so fast and studies have not been going on that long.
Vaccines are frequently in the news in 2020 and for good reason. They have long been used to help ease or eliminate some of the scariest and most deadly diseases in human history. The coronavirus that has caused a global pandemic definitely falls into those categories. Hopefully, vaccines can step up once again and get our lives back on track.