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SCIENCE: How does the meningitis B vaccine work?

Vaccines work by injecting people with a noninvasive form of a pathogen. The immune system makes a low-level response to this pathogen, giving the body immunity. – Photo by Jeffrey Gomez

Vaccines have become a renewed subject of interest with the introduction of a new Rutgers Student Health policy that requires students to receive the meningitis B vaccine.

Students have been recommended to get the first two doses of the vaccine before the 2016-2017 school year.

Lori Covey, a professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, discussed the science behind vaccines. 

There are multiple types of pathogens that cause different responses in the body, such as viruses, bacteria and other organisms that can infect the body, Covey said. 

In the case of viruses, they often enter through mucous membranes, such as the lining of the mouth. A virus cannot survive for long outside of a cell, so it targets cells with particular receptors that allow the virus to enter the cell.

In response to the viral infection, cell receptors send “danger signals” that inform the body’s immune cells that a virus has infected particular cells. Danger signals are sent by the infected cells, surrounding cells and even the virus itself, she said.

These signals trigger the immune system to mobilize and eliminate the infection. This includes increased production of immune cells, many of which arise from bone marrow, she said.

The newly-produced immune cells are released into the bloodstream, and they track the infection based on signals coming from the body’s cells and the pathogens. The symptoms associated with viral infections, such as fever and aches, are part of the immune response, she said.

A person’s body will have a “naïve immune response” the first time it is infected by a particular pathogen. The body will be more prepared the next time it encounters the same <g>pathogen</g> because the immune system would have generated memory cells from fighting off the infection, Covey said.

These memory cells greatly improve the body’s response time to the pathogen. In fact, Covey said a person will probably not realize he or she has been <g>infected</g> if it is not the first time dealing with that pathogen.

The immune system’s memory response is the basis for vaccines. Instead of gaining a memory response from an actual infection, people can get this from vaccines, she said.

Vaccines work by injecting people with a dead, recombinant or otherwise noninvasive form of a pathogen. The immune system makes a low-level response to this pathogen. In doing so, the body gains immunity.

While vaccines usually last for most of a lifetime, Covery said the flu vaccine should be taken every year.

"Flu viruses actually mutate so quickly that the flu you're looking at one year doesn't necessarily look like the flu you're going to see the next year," she said. "That's why you continually have to get flu vaccines to get immunized against that year's particular seasonal flu."

Vaccines have saved millions of lives and largely eradicated diseases such as polio, she said.

Covey emphasized that the benefits of vaccines vastly outweigh their risks. To highlight this point, she recalled a boy in her <g>second-grade</g> class who did not receive the polio vaccine and became permanently disabled from polio.

"I've lived in an era when many childhood diseases didn't have vaccinations. Mumps, measles and similar diseases put kids out of school for two weeks at a minimum if the kids were healthy," she said. "If the kids were not healthy, it could really cause a lot of damage."

Neil Bhavsar, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, is the co-founder of the One and the Same Foundation, an organization that works to reduce measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) rates in the slums of Maharashtra, India. 

A major part of their work is spreading MMR vaccines to that area, where the annual death rate by MMR is around 60,000.

Children who are both old enough and not allergic to vaccines should be vaccinated, because herd immunity is crucial in the prevention of disease. Those who cannot be vaccinated can be infected by others, he said.

"It's quite alarming when we notice a resurgence of MMR in the US, and even more terrifying when the efficacy of vaccines is being doubted by parents," he said.

As seen over the course of history the prevalence of many infectious diseases, such as smallpox, meningitis, hepatitis and polio, have decreased due to vaccines, said Anna Yu, a senior in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

These diseases used to affect significant portions of the population. Now, those diseases are not as much of a threat due to vaccines, she said.

If a high enough proportion of the population is vaccinated, Covey said the unvaccinated individuals are also protected because there are no viable ways for the disease to spread.

There is controversy over this <g>issue</g> because some parents are afraid of potential side effects of vaccines. There are also some who object to vaccines due to religious beliefs, she said.

“Individuals have blamed autism on vaccines, but there is no scientific evidence supporting this claim,” she said.

George Xie is a Rutgers Business School sophomore majoring in finance. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum. You can see more on Twitter @georgefxie.

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