Understanding Your Defense against Germs during the Viral Season

By Sheila Kun RN, BSN, MS, CPN, FCCP

The flu season has arrived! Working in the hospital, we get reports of the incidence of the influenza infection for this year and get ready to start giving flu shots. The flu season has an early start this year; we have heard of two pediatric deaths related to influenza infection. I thought this will be a very timely discussion of how to keep you heathy during this viral season. In order to have a better understanding of the what, how and why of the influenza annual visit and how the government decides what vaccines to give, I feel we should have a good understanding of how our defense system works in our body first.

Our immune system produces a separate set of weapons for each kind of pathogen that it encounters. The immune system is made up of cells in your blood, lymph, bone marrow, and other tissues. Cells in the immune system are “tailored-made” for each pathogen. As a result, the immune system can recognize, seek out, and destroy specific pathogens throughout your body. Pathogens that enter your body for the first time often cause disease. Your immune system recognizes a new pathogen, but must also build up its arsenal of weapons against that pathogen. This process takes time; once the immune system is built up, the immune system kills the pathogens, and your body gradually recovers from the infection.

There are two types of immunity – active and passive. Both are important in protecting the body against infections. Active immunity is the immunity that your own immune creates. Active immunity results from having a disease or receiving a vaccine. An example of an active immunity response is your immunizations (your baby shots) or vaccinations (such as your flu vaccine). Vaccines contain small amount of dead or modified pathogens or their toxins. A vaccine causes your immune system to make antibodies to the pathogen or the toxin, as if you were actually infected with the pathogen. This gives you immunity without having to experience disease. After a few years, you may receive a bolster dose of some vaccines to “remind” your immune system to main your immunity.

Passive immunity is acquired by receiving antibodies from another immune system. This type of immunity is temporary, not lifelong. A good example of the passive immunity is the case of a person bitten by a dog with rabies. Antibodies to rabies can be obtained from the blood of horses that have been exposed to the rabies virus. This injection of rabies antibodies help to prevent the development of the disease. Eventually these antibodies would disappear from your body.

Now that you have a good understanding of the active and passive immunity systems, we will explore how our flu vaccine works in the coming weeks.

Your homework assignment from the Care Ministry this week: Be ready to sign up for the flu vaccine.

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