Vaccines have completely revolutionized the medical field since the first successful smallpox vaccination in 1796, but vaccine science isn’t always easy to understand.
In the simplest of terms, vaccines teach your immune system how to fight off a virus. There are many different kinds of vaccines, so trying to tell the difference between them can be confusing.
With the COVID-19 pandemic making vaccination even more important than ever, you might be asking yourself, how do vaccines work in the first place? Here is a brief rundown of the different types of vaccines and how they help keep you safe.
Types of Vaccines
There are three main categories of vaccines: whole-microbe, subunit, and genetic. These all have to do with the way in which a vaccine is developed.
Whole-microbe vaccines use the whole virus, subunit vaccines use just a part of the virus, and genetic vaccines send your immune system information about how to make a protein associated with the virus.
Live Attenuated Vaccines
Live attenuated vaccines contain a weak form of the virus or a similar virus to introduce it to your immune system. The first vaccine was live attenuated and contained cowpox in order to provide immunity against smallpox. That’s where the term “vaccine” comes from — it derives from the Latin word for “cow.”
Live attenuated vaccines often provide lifelong immunity, and some current vaccines of this type are used against measles, mumps, and chickenpox.
Another form of whole-microbe vaccines, inactivated vaccines, carries a dead form of a virus to provide immunity. The body can still learn how to recognize and fight it, even though it’s dead. Common inactivated vaccines are used against hepatitis A, polio, and rabies.
Viral Vector Vaccines
Viral vector vaccines use a harmless virus to transport information about another virus to your immune system, which teaches your body to fight back against both. Essentially, the information about how to defeat a harmful virus hitches a ride with a much safer one. The Ebola vaccine is an example of this type of vaccine.
These vaccines deal with toxins, like tetanus. They work in a similar way to whole-microbe vaccines and introduce a deactivated toxin, called a toxoid, into your body.
Subunit vaccines only use a small portion of a germ, not the whole germ itself. Your body will learn to recognize that portion of the germ and fight back. Because they don’t contain a whole virus, these are safe to use for those who are immuno-comprised and on children.
The flu, whooping cough, HPV, and meningococcal (meningitis) vaccines are all examples of subunit vaccines.
Nucleic Acid Vaccines
Unlike other vaccines, nucleic acid vaccines don’t contain material from the viruses at all. Instead, they carry information using DNA or messenger RNA (mRNA) that will teach your body how to fight back.
When you’re vaccinated with one of these vaccines, your body learns how to create the specific protein associated with a virus, and then your immune system learns how to recognize and fight it.
mRNA vaccines are a much more recent form of vaccine technology, and they are used to combat COVID-19. Its research and production have skyrocketed due to the pandemic.
According to Professor Kenneth Chien, who co-founded Moderna, “The experience of COVID-19 has moved the whole field forward ten years. We have quickly come a long way in terms of mRNA used both with vaccines and with medicines.”
What Are the Benefits of Vaccines?
Vaccines don’t just protect you as an individual — they can protect your entire community by forcing viruses to die out. Smallpox has been completely eradicated worldwide due to vaccines, and other diseases like polio and measles have been significantly weakened in many areas.
Now that you know the many types of vaccines be sure you are up to date on all your vaccinations. If you liked this article, be sure to check out our other Health and Fitness articles to stay informed.
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