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A nerdy explanation of the vaccine immune response

Last updated on February 23rd, 2014 at 01:13 pm

Your immune system. Well, a tiny part of it.

Your immune system. Well, a tiny part of it.

Attempting to explain the immune system in 1000 words or less is impossible. At least I thought it was impossible.

Despite what the anti-science community believes about the immune system, it is way more complicated than some of the simple explanations I’ve read on the internet. It took me around 5000 words just to give my audience a basic review of immunology article, and I still shake my head. 

I had to take several years of immunology courses, just to get my science degrees, and I know I just scratched the surface. The problem is that the immune system is a complex interactive network of organs, blood, cells, proteins, factors, messengers and numerous other biological parts. If you tried to draw lines of interaction between these constituent biological parts, it would look like an airline flight map, with a nearly infinite number of interconnected activity.

That’s why I laugh hysterically whenever someone says “eat more broccoli, it boosts the immune system” because the immune system is so complicated, you could may be able to make one part of it work better, but if all the other parts remain the same, nothing has changed. In fact, the human immune system works pretty well almost all of the time, unless there is some chronic condition that suppresses it.

There really is only one way to “boost” the immune system, and that’s vaccinations. Because an immunization is scientifically developed to stimulate the immune system to be ready for a pathogen before it becomes dangerous.

Recently, I ran across an article in, Save Your Child, Save The World. Part 1: The Science. It was the traditional pro-science/pro-vaccine article, except for this outstanding simple explanation of the immune response to vaccines:

Here’s a nerdy metaphor (because, yes, we’re nerds). Think about a video game that allows you to do a practice round. You figure out the controls while playing against the computer on a very easy setting, before attempting to take on a far more powerful opponent in the game itself.

Without the practice, you’d go into the game blind, and would almost certainly be defeated as you have no prior knowledge or tools with which to fight the bad guy. Vaccines work similarly. They provide a powerless enemy in a controlled setting that is unable to cause disease in the body.

The fascinating part is that a healthy immune system can still learn how to destroy this enemy, even without previously having encountered that particular virus before. Vaccines trigger an immune response in which your body identifies the appropriate “B” and “T” cells needed to destroy a particular virus and replicates them, creating “memory cells” that stay in your body. Then when your body encounters the stronger, meaner version of the virus in the real world, it is already equipped with the prior knowledge and weapons to defeat the virus.  

Thus, it has a better chance of eliminating the virus before that virus has the opportunity to co-opt your body for use as a factory for unleashing armies of viruses into the world to infect other members of the community, not to mention make you miserably ill in the process. This is the SAME WAY that your body creates immunity to a virus after getting sick – only, you don’t have to actually get sick to do it. A vaccine, in other words, is target practice for your immune system.  What’s so unnatural about that?

As an aficionado of video games and of vaccines, I have some nerdy cheers for this metaphor. Good job. Huzzah! 

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Michael Simpson

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