Understanding Vaccines: Your Important Questions Answered by a Medical Writer

Understanding Vaccines: Your Important Questions Answered by a Medical Writer

how vaccines work

Vaccines are one of the most significant advancements in modern medicine, yet they remain a topic of confusion and sometimes, particularly over the last few years, even controversy. When considering the importance of vaccinations to ourselves and society, we must always rely on rigorous, evidence-based research and data, and that is exactly what I endeavour to do here in as simple and accessible a way as possible.

So, in this short explainer, we will discuss how vaccines work and why they are so important for public health.

Understanding How Vaccinations Work

Vaccinations teach your body how to fight off harmful germs, like viruses and bacteria, without making you unwell.

Here is a simplified explanation of how they work:

Vaccines expose your body to a weakened or inactive form of a virus or bacteria, or even just a tiny segment of it. This trains your body’s immune system to recognise the invader. It also instructs your body to produce antibodies and memory cells, preparing to fight off the actual infection swiftly if you encounter it at a later date.

Types of vaccines

mrna vaccines

Vaccines come in different forms, and you may have heard about various types during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are the main types:

  • Live Attenuated Vaccines: These contain a weakened version of the live virus or bacteria. They tend to provide robust and long-lasting immunity, but they might not be suitable for everyone, especially those with weakened immune systems. Examples include the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine and the chickenpox vaccine.
  • Inactivated Vaccines: Instead of weakened germs, these vaccines use germs that have been “killed” or inactivated. They are generally safe for most people, but might require multiple doses or booster shots to maintain protection. The flu shot and polio vaccine are examples of inactivated vaccines.
  • Subunit, Recombinant, or Conjugate Vaccines: These vaccines contain specific pieces of the germ, such as proteins or sugars. They are designed to trigger a very targeted immune response. Examples include the hepatitis B vaccine and the pneumococcal vaccine.
  • mRNA Vaccines: This newer type of vaccine teaches our cells how to make a protein—or even just a piece of a protein—that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. This immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the actual virus enters our bodies. Examples are the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. We heard a lot about these novel types of vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Viral Vector Vaccines: These vaccines use a harmless virus (the vector) as a delivery system. The vector carries genetic material from the germ that causes the disease, but it can’t cause the disease itself. Once inside your cells, the genetic material triggers an immune response. The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is an example of a viral vector vaccine.

Each vaccine type has its own unique advantages and applications. However, they all have the same common goal: to help your body recognise and fight off harmful germs, keeping you healthy.

Herd Immunity: How Vaccines Work to Protect Everyone

Herd immunity also referred to as ‘population immunity,’ is an important concept in public health and infectious disease control. It describes a phenomenon where a significant portion of a population becomes immune to a specific disease, making the spread of that disease from person to person unlikely. This indirectly protects individuals who are not immune, such as those who are too young to be vaccinated, those who are immunocompromised, or those unable to receive certain vaccines due to medical reasons.

While herd immunity can be achieved through active infection, this is not always possible. Natural infection can be problematic for many reasons, including the risk of severe illness and death (particularly in the very young, the very old and the immunocompromised), unpredictable immunity and unnecessary strain on the healthcare system.

As part of the UK’s early response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was some consideration of allowing the virus to spread through the population to achieve herd immunity through natural infection. However, this approach was quickly abandoned due to the high potential for severe illness, hospitalization, and death, especially among vulnerable populations. At this point, the emphasis shifted to using vaccination as the primary tool for achieving herd immunity against COVID-19.

Answering Some Common Questions About Vaccines

Here are answers to some of the most common questions about vaccines:

Are Vaccines Safe?

Yes, vaccines are remarkably safe. They go through rigorous testing and monitoring to ensure they meet high safety standards. Serious side effects are rare, and the benefits of protection against potentially deadly diseases far outweigh the risks.

Are There Any Side Effects?

It is normal to experience mild side effects after receiving your vaccination. This may include soreness at the injection site, a low-grade fever, or fatigue. These are signs that your immune system is responding and building up its defences. If you are concerned about any specific side effects, you should speak to your medical professional; they will be able to provide you with further information, as well as a patient information leaflet detailing side effects associated with your specific vaccine.

Why Do We Still Need Vaccines for Diseases that are Rare?

Vaccines are the reason why many serious diseases are rare today. If we stop vaccinating, these diseases could quickly return, so it is important to continue to offer routine vaccines as part of our national public health strategy.

Can I Get Flu From the Flu Vaccine?

No, this is a common myth. The flu vaccine cannot give you the flu. The vaccine contains an inactive version of the flu virus that cannot make you sick. You might experience mild flu-like symptoms, but this is just your immune system doing its job and reacting to the vaccine.

Do Vaccines Cause Autism?

This is a commonly asked question and a source of concern for many individuals, particularly parents, as they decide whether to get vaccinated. It is important to know that extensive research has consistently shown no link between vaccines and autism. This misconception originated from a deeply flawed study that was retracted and discredited. Multiple large-scale studies have thoroughly investigated this issue and found no evidence of a causal relationship. The scientific consensus is clear: vaccines are safe and do not cause autism.

How Often Do I Need to Get Booster Vaccines?

The need for booster shots varies depending on the specific vaccine you are receiving and the disease that it protects against. Some vaccines provide lifelong protection, while others require periodic boosters to maintain immunity. You should ask your medical professional about the recommended booster schedule for specific vaccines.

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