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How do Immunizations Work?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Immunizations work by helping the body prepare antibodies to fight a disease. This is done by injecting the body with a small amount of either a live or dead virus, which will trigger an immune response from the body. This immune response will occur not only with a vaccination, but also with future exposure to the virus.

Immunizations work by keeping a person safe from contracting a disease “later.” If a person were immunized against a disease, exposure to the disease would immediately set up an immune response, thus protecting the person from actually getting the disease.

Often exposure to and contraction of certain illnesses means one won’t get them again. So exposure and contraction of one virus often leaves a person immune for life, and is the body’s way of making its own immunizations. This does not mean the person won’t get similar viruses with similar symptoms, as with the many rhinoviruses that cause the common cold. However, one may note that in some families, the children will get a rhinovirus the parents don’t get. This tends to be because the parents have already had this particular virus in the past and are now immune to it.

A few viruses do not cause lifelong immunity. Some noted examples are respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Children at risk may receive immunizations for RSV when they are young, but will not remain immune once immunizations stop. Additionally they can get RSV more than once.

Most immunizations, however, capitalize on the body’s ability to become immune to many types of viruses. Instead of waiting for the person to develop natural immunity by contracting a disease, immunizations expose the body to the disease so the body will learn to defend itself against future exposure.

This is generally thought safer than actually developing immunity by getting a disease. Most viruses or parts of viruses injected cannot cause the disease for which the person becomes immune. There are a couple of exceptions. The chicken pox and measles/mumps/rubella immunizations are taken from live viruses. In rare cases a child may develop one of these viruses after immunizations, but cases tend to be fairly mild.

The oral polio vaccine also carried some risk for contracting polio. This occurred very rarely, and now most often the inactive polio vaccination (IPV), using a dead form of the virus, is used instead. This means a child can’t get polio from the IPV and is likely immunized for life.

Some immunizations do not result in lifelong immunity. Often immunizations must be repeated in early puberty or early adulthood to continue to provide protection from diseases. Many have found that doctor’ recommendations for when to have immunizations has changed over time. It’s advised to consult a doctor about new recommendations for immunizations, particularly for the elderly, and for children as they age.

Some viruses are noted for not being stopped by immunizations. This has been the case with developing an HIV vaccination. The problem with HIV in regards to a vaccination is that HIV attacks the cells that normally trigger an immune response. Since these cells are disabled, they aren’t able to fight off the virus. While some drugs have helped limit HIV severity, no one has yet been able to develop a vaccine, which would make the immune cells respond appropriately.

Further, HIV is a retrovirus, which means it tends to change its shape as the body attempts to fight it. So injecting dead HIV virus into a person might mean the body could fight one form of HIV, but would not be able to recognize it or fight it in other forms.

Learning more about the body’s immune response might result in an HIV vaccination at a later point, but many scientists conclude we are not that close to achieving this. However, for many illnesses, new vaccines may help significantly reduce risk of serious disease. The new vaccination for human papillomavirus is a significant step toward reducing incidence of cervical cancer.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon326132 — On Mar 20, 2013

"If you decide to not vaccinate, you must take responsibility for living as healthy as you can - which is likely why you decide that." Are you serious?

I'm sorry, but if you are exposed to someone who has a disease that you are not vaccinated for, it doesn't matter how *healthy* you are living.

Assuming that other people don't have it is to mooch off the community's resistance via immunization. If other people didn't get shots, you would be at a much higher risk.

By anon168177 — On Apr 15, 2011

Dr. Wakefield did not admit this. Ten of the 13 doctors said the results were inaccurate. Not the doctor who you are saying. There are other studies that show vaccines do cause problems. There is a lot of information available.

No parent wants their child to be sick but it is part of the human condition. It is a personal choice. If you decide to not vaccinate, you must take responsibility for living as healthy as you can - which is likely why you decide that.

There are many factors that likely lead to autism. After a lot of research and personal experience, I have decided to discontinue all immunizations. Does this mean if there was a threat of a very serious illness that was very likely, would I not consider it - well I would. But I do not feel vaccinations in general are healthy.

The solution is not black and white, and both have risks. It is really up to you to decide what risk you are willing to take. My unvaccinated child is much healthier and smarter and "normal" than my children who are. There is also the problem that vaccines do not provide lifelong immunity in many cases - including for chicken pox. Getting it as an adult is far worse. Personally, I would rather my child get it and that would provide lifelong immunity in almost all cases.

Unfortunately you can't cheat death. To get some information you may want to Check out Dr. Tenpenny, Dr. Mercola and the ideas of Dr. Andrew Moulden. This would give you some information that your pediatrician may not want to admit. Another tip is to read up on the diseases and their effects and instance prior to vaccines and now. That way you can see what the real threat would be if no one vaccinated.

Do not even consider the HPV vaccine. This has caused miscarriages, seizures and death. All vaccines hold a risk for these same reactions. It is up to you to decide if that risk outweighs the possible benefit. This is what I wish the vaccine industry would acknowledge. You should be aware of the risks and the numbers. The information is available. Use many sources. No one source should ever be used to make such an important decision. Good luck!

By christensen — On Mar 07, 2011

The link you're referring to came from a study published in "The Lancet" that has now been proven to have falsified results. The writer of the study has confessed to this. There is no link between autism and vaccinations. This is proven even more by the fact that the study scared many parents into not getting immunizations for their kids.

This should have corresponded to a decrease in autism levels. But, autism diagnosis levels continue to rise though vaccinations decreased. Pediatric organizations strongly recommend immunization, as the risks of death or disabling illness are so much higher when children are not vaccinated.

By abundancer — On Mar 07, 2011

@flowerchild--I used to work with some of these children and there was a mixture of both immunized and non-immunized, so it's really hard to say if the immunizations or the mercury in them is to blame.

I believe that mercury exposure is not generally a healthy thing. I know if you have done your research, you have seen there may be a link between mercury and if a child has a pre-disposition to autism.

Since we can't know if a child has a pre-disposition to autism before they present with symptoms, it is best to make this decision with your pediatrician.

By flowerchild — On Mar 07, 2011

I have little ones and I am on the fence about immunizations. I have heard so many people talk about them causing autism.

Does anyone know the facts about this? Is there scientific evidence for the concerns I have heard so much about?

Thanks, my husband and I just don't know what to do. We want to do what is right for our children.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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