I’ve been writing a lot about epidemics lately, including Ebola, EnterovirusD68, and others. I talk about immunity issues a lot in my articles, but I haven’t really explained what it is in much detail. In this article, I hope to give you a working knowledge of it and the various types of immunity that keep a community from running rampant with infectious disease.
Your immune system is a marvel, and probably saves your life every day from one harmful germ or another, and even zaps some microscopic cancers.
Let’s talk a bit about immunity as it relates to infectious disease. Immunity is the ability of your immune system to resist a particular infection or toxin. This can refer to resistance of an entire species (humans, for example, don’t get very many diseases that fish get) or the resistance of a particular individual to an illness. Typhoid Mary, for instance, was a domestic cook who carried the germ for Typhoid fever and passed it on to many others without ever getting sick herself. Immunity is affected by many factors, such as age, genetics, and stress from nutritional, environmental, or chronic illness, something we’ll all experience in a survival setting.
There are several levels of immunity. They are:
- SHORT-TERM IMMUNITY
When an infectious agent is detected, the body responds by producing a large amount of white blood cells, an immune response which attacks the invader. Your body does this for every day. During an epidemic, the human population’s ability to generate white cells increases its resistance. It is this property of the human body that causes the epidemic to eventually collapse.
- LONG-TERM IMMUNITY
The body’s defenses may retain a type of ‘memory’ of the offending organism. If the illness returns to the area, that memory causes the body to produce a faster and stronger response against it. This is especially true with viral infections, often giving lifetime protection. An example would be “Varicella”, a viral illness otherwise known as ‘chicken pox”. Once you have had chicken pox, you probably won’t get it again for the remainder of your life.
- NATURAL IMMUNITY
A particular individual, or occasionally an entire species, might possess the ability to resist a pathogen due to genetic “memory” passed on from generation to generation.
The Native American population of the New World, for example, had an extraordinarily high mortality rate when exposed to smallpox by the first European explorers. In some areas, 90% of the native population of the North American East Coast died. Those same explorers, however, had a much higher survival rate due to natural immunity given by centuries of previous exposures.
4. HERD IMMUNITY
When a large group (a “herd”) possesses immunity, non-immune individuals in it enjoy a certain protection due to fewer exposures to an infection that may otherwise be fatal to them. The most common example today relates to vaccinated populations. If an unvaccinated person moves into an area where many are immune due to vaccinations, the likelihood of exposure to, say, measles drops significantly. This confers a certain level of protection. The person isn’t immune to measles but there is very little exposure to it because everyone else is vaccinated. if many unvaccinated people move into an area, however, the overall “herd immunity” may be lost.
5. ACQUIRED IMMUNITY
Vaccinations against influenza are usually made available to people in developed countries in advance of seasonal outbreaks, in an effort to confer immunity to the populace. This type of immunity is known as acquired immunity, as it was acquired artificially by vaccine as opposed to natural immunity by exposure to a disease.
With influenza, these are most effective if the virus is similar to last year’s strain, as they use material from that to produce the vaccine. If the virus has mutated significantly, the vaccine may not be as effective. If the virus doesn’t mutate a great deal, such as smallpox, vaccine could eradicate a disease. This is not to say that there might not be side-effects or complications from the vaccine, just that the benefits might outweigh the risk in certain cases.
That’s just a little on immunity. in future articles, we’ll discuss important aspects of protection against those bugs that might cross the border into your area and some topics from our latest no-nonsense DVD on pandemic preparedness.
Joe Alton, M.D., aka Dr. Bones
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