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How Do Vaccines Work?

Written by Richard Moskowitz, MD   
Thursday, 01 June 2006 00:00
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It is dangerously misleading and indeed false to claim that a vaccine makes us “immune” or “protects” us against an acute disease. In fact, it only drives the infection deeper into the interior and causes us to harbor it chronically, with the result that our responses to it become weaker and weaker, and show less and less tendency to heal or resolve themselves spontaneously. To consider that possibility, I will examine the process of coming down with and recovering from a typical acute disease like the measles, in contrast to what we can observe after giving the measles vaccine.

As is well known, measles is primarily a virus of the respiratory tract, both because it is acquired by inhalation of infected droplets in the air, and because these droplets are produced by coughing and sneezing of patients with the disease. Once inhaled by a susceptible person, the virus then undergoes a long period of silent multiplication, first in the tonsils, adenoids, and accessory lymphoid tissues of the nasopharynx, later in the regional lymph nodes of the head and neck, and eventually, several days later, passes into the blood and enters the spleen, the liver, the thymus, and the bone marrow, the visceral organs of the immune system.1 Throughout this “incubation period,” lasting from 10 to 14 days, the patient usually feels quite well, and experiences few if any symptoms.2

How Vaccines WorkBy the time that the first symptoms appear, circulating antibodies are already detectable in the blood, while the height of the symptomatology coincides with the peak of the antibody response.3 In other words, the illness we know as “the measles” is precisely the attempt of the immune system to eliminate the virus from the blood, mainly by sneezing and coughing, i.e., via the same route that it entered the body in the first place.

Moreover, the process of coming down with and recovering from an acute illness like the measles involves a general mobilization of the entire immune system, including:

1) inflammation of previously sensitized tissues at the portal of entry;

2) activation of white cells and macrophages that find and destroy the foreign elements; and

3) release of special serum protein fractions to expedite these operations. Numerous other mechanisms are also involved, of which the production of specific antibodies is only one (and by no means the most important.)

This splendid outpouring leaves little room for doubt that acute illnesses are in fact the decisive experiences in the normal, physiological maturation of the immune system as a whole. For not only will children who recover from the measles never again be susceptible to it;4 such an experience must also prepare them to respond even more promptly and effectively to whatever other infections they may acquire in the future. Indeed, the ability to mount a vigorous, acute response to organisms of this type must be reckoned among the fundamental requirements of general health and well-being.