How vaccines work

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What are vaccines?

A vaccine is a substance used to stimulate the production of antibodies and provides immunity against one or several diseases. It is given to prevent an infectious disease from developing and the person becoming ill. Vaccines are made from microbes that are dead or inactive so that they are unable to cause disease. The antigen in a vaccine is the same as the antigen on the surface of the disease-causing microbe.

How do vaccines work?

The vaccine stimulates the body to produce antibodies against the antigen in the vaccine. The antibodies created will be the same as those produced if the person was exposed to the pathogen. If the vaccinated person then comes into contact with the disease-causing microbe, the immune system remembers the antibodies it made to the vaccine and can make them faster. 

Why understanding how vaccines work matters to microbiology

Vaccines have played a vital role in the on-going battle against infectious diseases. Louis Pasteur introduced the concept that infectious diseases were caused by micro-organisms and developed the first vaccine against rabies which was successfully used to inoculate a young boy who was bitten by an Alsatian. Later the introduction of mass vaccination was responsible for the eradication of smallpox virus in 1977. However, the emergence of new diseases, together with the dramatic spread of resistance to antimicrobial agents, has increased the need to develop new vaccines. 

Read more about why understanding how vaccines work matters to our members and the wider microbiology community; access our resources, which detail what we currently understand about how vaccines work, and continue to read more about why vaccination matters to microbiology as we explore how vaccines are produced. 

  • Microbiologists working in this area

    To celebrate our 75th anniversary in 2020, we invited microbiologists to nominate the discovery or event that best showcases why microbiology matters and helps us demonstrate the impact of microbiologists past, present and future. Learn more about the microbiologists whose research focuses on how vaccines work.

  • Resources and further reading

    Discover more about how microbiologists work to prepare vaccines for flu season; how vaccines can help fight infectious fungi, and how we can learn from scientific discoveries and achievements from centuries past when it comes to understanding how vaccines work.

  • Vaccine production

    Although not all vaccines are especially difficult to produce, some can take a long time to develop because they have to be safe. We will explore why vaccine production is important and where vaccines still need to be developed if we hope to eradicate certain types of disease.

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