Vaccinations protect both humans and animals from a wide range of preventable and potentially serious illnesses.
With vaccines, we take advantage of one of the most important aspects of the immune system: the ability to develop immunological memory. This means that once a person or animal is exposed to a particular pathogen - in other words anything that can cause illness - they will develop resistance to infections with that same pathogen in the future.
Our adaptive immune system contains white blood cells known as T and B lymphocytes. These become activated during first time or ‘primary’ exposure to a pathogen. Once the pathogen has been fought off by our body, a population of T and B lymphocytes known as memory cells, remain in the individual. These memory cells remain on standby, ready to react quickly when the individual is re-exposed to that particular pathogen in what is known as ‘secondary exposure’. The ‘immunological memory’ helps the immune system respond much more rapidly and effectively than during the primary exposure. As a result, the individual is generally protected from the development of disease symptoms.
Vaccines generate this immunological memory effect artificially and at an early stage to prevent future diseases. This means we inject a weakened version of pathogens, inactivated pathogens, or just particular parts of pathogens into the individual that we want to protect. In healthy individuals, these vaccine components activate a specific immune response, mimicking primary infection, but weak enough not to cause development of disease symptoms!
By taking advantage of immunological memory in this way, vaccination prevents and controls the spread of a wide range of illnesses, including polio, smallpox, whooping cough, measles, and the seasonal influenza virus.
In recent years, there has been controversy over the safety of vaccination programs. To date, all credible scientific evidence strongly supports the importance of vaccination in avoiding preventable illnesses in individuals and populations.
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