Vaccines Are Safeguarding America’s Health

Image provided by CDC/ Judy Schmidt

Image provided by CDC/ Judy Schmidt

The chances are very good that you’ve never had diphtheria. And that you’ve never known anyone who had diphtheria. You may not even be familiar with the word “diphtheria.”

But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this bacterial disease was responsible for more deaths in the U.S. than cancer, striking hundreds of thousands of people. Contrast that with today’s statistics: In the 1990s, an average of only three diphtheria cases were reported each year.

The almost complete eradication of diphtheria is just one of the major success stories of preventive vaccines. And, today, like whooping cough (pertussis), measles, mumps and German measles (rubella), the diphtheria vaccine is part of children’s routine immunizations.

It’s always better and more cost effective to prevent a disease than to treat it once it’s already developed, which is one reason why vaccines continue to be a key ingredient in our overall health care plan — just think about last year’s urgency to develop a vaccine against the H1N1 virus. And as the Washington Post reported late last year, the U.S. government continues to focus on identifying new ways to get vaccines developed and into the marketplace — quickly.

So, how are vaccines created?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), once scientists have identified the microorganism (such as bacteria or virus) or toxin that is causing an illness, they embark on a number of different strategies to develop a vaccine. But no matter which specific strategy they wind up using, all approaches to vaccine development focus on the immune system, the body’s natural defense mechanism against foreign invaders.

Vaccines provoke the body’s immune system into responding to an invader, thereby creating an “immune system memory.” That way, the next time the body encounters the bacteria or toxin, it “remembers” it and is prepared to do battle with the intruder. Here’s how it works: A weakened form of the disease germ is injected into the body. The body makes antibodies to fight the “invading germs.” Then, if and when the actual disease ever attacks, the antibodies are still in place to launch their battle and keep the individual from getting sick.

Today, scientists are working to develop vaccines for a wide range of diseases — besides tackling new strains of influenza, laboratories are working hard to develop vaccines that would guard against the HIV virus, tuberculosis and even cancer. Advances in genetics and a host of new technologies are providing researchers with new and improved strategies, and steps are being taken to develop vaccines to help guard against the threat of bioterrorist attacks.

And perhaps one day, vaccines will make all of these diseases as unfamilar as “diphtheria.”

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