Vaccines for Prevention

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify the advantages of vaccines as a preventative measure

The primary method of controlling viral disease is by vaccination, which is intended to prevent outbreaks by building immunity to a virus or virus family (Figure 1). Vaccines may be prepared using live viruses, killed viruses, or molecular subunits of the virus. Note that the killed viral vaccines and subunit viruses are both incapable of causing disease, nor is there any valid evidence that vaccinations contribute to autism.

The photo shows a person receiving an injection in the arm.

Figure 1. Vaccinations are designed to boost immunity to a virus to prevent infection. (credit: USACE Europe District)

Live viral vaccines are designed in the laboratory to cause few symptoms in recipients while giving them protective immunity against future infections. Polio was one disease that represented a milestone in the use of vaccines. Mass immunization campaigns in the 1950s (killed vaccine) and 1960s (live vaccine) significantly reduced the incidence of the disease, which caused muscle paralysis in children and generated a great amount of fear in the general population when regional epidemics occurred. The success of the polio vaccine paved the way for the routine dispensation of childhood vaccines against measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, and other diseases.

The issue with using live vaccines (which are usually more effective than killed vaccines), is the low but significant danger that these viruses will revert to their disease-causing form by back mutations. Live vaccines are usually made by attenuating (weakening) the “wild-type” (disease-causing) virus by growing it in the laboratory in tissues or at temperatures different from what the virus is accustomed to in the host. Adaptations to these new cells or temperatures induce mutations in the genomes of the virus, allowing it to grow better in the laboratory while inhibiting its ability to cause disease when reintroduced into conditions found in the host. These attenuated viruses thus still cause infection, but they do not grow very well, allowing the immune response to develop in time to prevent major disease. Back mutations occur when the vaccine undergoes mutations in the host such that it readapts to the host and can again cause disease, which can then be spread to other humans in an epidemic. This type of scenario happened as recently as 2007 in Nigeria where mutations in a polio vaccine led to an epidemic of polio in that country.

Some vaccines are in continuous development because certain viruses, such as influenza and HIV, have a high mutation rate compared to that of other viruses and normal host cells. With influenza, mutations in the surface molecules of the virus help the organism evade the protective immunity that may have been obtained in a previous influenza season, making it necessary for individuals to get vaccinated every year. Other viruses, such as those that cause the childhood diseases measles, mumps, and rubella, mutate so infrequently that the same vaccine is used year after year.

The current global pandemic involving the virus SARS-Co-V-2 is a fitting example as to why the general public benefits from having a basic understanding of how viruses and vaccines work. Although this video has a lot of scientific depth (56 minutes), the presenters do a great job of delivering the information in a way that all students can pull important information about the development of vaccines!

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