In 1796, an English doctor called Edward Jenner (1749-1823) gave the first vaccination. He realized that milkmaids who caught cowpox did not catch the very dangerous disease of smallpox. By injecting the cowpox virus into a child, he was able to vaccinate him against the more serious disease. As the body fights the virus, antibodies are formed in the blood that prevents further infections or infection by some similar viruses. Today, huge vaccination programmers ensure that most children are protected against a range of diseases.
A person may become immune to a specific disease in several ways. For some illnesses, such as measles and chickenpox, having the disease usually leads to lifelong immunity to it. Vaccination is another way to become immune to a disease. Both ways of gaining immunity, either from having an illness or from vaccination, are examples of active immunity. Active immunity results when a person’s immune system works to produce antibodies and activate other immune cells to certain pathogens. If the person encounters that pathogen again, long-lasting immune cells specific to it will already be primed to fight it.
A different type of immunity, called passive immunity, results when a person is given someone else’s antibodies. When these antibodies are introduced into the person’s body, the “loaned” antibodies help prevent or fight certain infectious diseases. The protection offered by passive immunization is short-lived, usually lasting only a few weeks or months. But it helps protect right away.
Infants benefit from passive immunity acquired when their mothers’ antibodies and pathogen-fighting white cells cross the placenta to reach the developing children, especially in the third trimester. A substance called colostrum, which an infant receives during nursing sessions in the first days after birth and before the mother begins producing “true” breast milk, is rich in antibodies and provides protection for the infant. Breast milk, though not as rich in protective components as colostrum, also contains antibodies that pass to the nursing infant. This protection provided by the mother, however, is short-lived. During the first few months of life, maternal antibody levels in the infant fall, and protection fades by about six months of age.
Passive immunity can be induced artificially when antibodies are given as a medication to a nonimmune individual. These antibodies may come from the pooled and purified blood products of immune people or from non-human immune animals, such as horses. In fact, the earliest antibody-containing preparations used against infectious diseases came from horses, sheep, and rabbits.