Among many other medical buzzwords we are suddenly aware of, “herd immunity” is by no means a new concept, but one that’s become quite popular recently. When scientists talk about creating vaccines and building herd immunity, what exactly are they doing? Here is some of the science behind herd immunity?

What is Herd Immunity?

The concept of herd immunity is an old one—if a large group is exposed to a virus and successfully fights it off, it will be easier for those in the middle whose immune systems are not as strong. Herd immunity is still used today and has been greatly improved with advancements in vaccines. Diseases like polio, chickenpox, and measles that were once deadly for many are no longer a threat in many places because of herd immunity.

How Does Herd Immunity Work?

Herd immunity uses the body’s immune system to do most of the work. A virus is introduced, the body fights it, kills it, and survives. By exposing the body to an infectious illness, the immune system creates antibodies for it, and the ‘memory’ of those antibodies stays in the system for a long time. That way, in the future, the body can fight off the illness more efficiently. For people who are immunocompromised, their bodies may have difficulty making these specific antibodies and will have a harder time recovering if they get sick. This is where herd immunity comes in: the people who can fight off illness do so in a controlled environment so those who can’t have a chance to survive.

In the past, this was done through things like “chickenpox parties”, where parents would get their kids exposed to chickenpox prematurely to help them fight it off at a young age and be immune in the future.

Where do Vaccines Come in?

Vaccines are the next step toward more effective herd immunity tactics. By developing weakened versions of an illness (like polio) and infecting an individual in a secure way (injection), doctors can essentially control the immunization process. By vaccinating a child with a weakened virus, they are more likely to fight it off with success. Then, the immune system is better prepared to fight off stronger versions of a given illness in the future, thus increasing chances for survival. This method of immunization is more effective at keeping immunocompromised individuals safe as well.

How You Can Help

The best way to do your part and aid with “strengthening the herd’s immunity” is to get your vaccines. Vaccines have nearly eradicated many diseases from the planet, including STIs like Chlamydia, dangerous viruses like chickenpox, and painful diseases like polio.

Other ways you can help include washing hands, covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and wearing a mask. Keeping your distance from those who are sick (including if you are sick), can also help prevent the spread of illness, especially during times like flu season, and the current pandemic. Then, when a vaccine for the Coronavirus comes out, get it—you’ll save many lives if you do.

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