As babies, we are born with an extremely weak immune system, having not been exposed to any environmental pathogens since the immune system is a sort of learning mechanism that “identifies and logs” threats as they come.
The only immunity we have is that given to us by maternal immunoglobulins, which help prevent a newborn from getting sick soon after birth. Unfortunately, these immunoglobulins do not last and, after a few months, the infant’s immune system is on its own.
This is not true, however, among breastfed infants, which continue to gain protection against disease from the mother’s milk, which makes them relatively invulnerable to those infections a mother is already immune to.
Building an Immune System
Hopefully, the first actions of the infant’s immune system happen as a result of immunizations. This usually happens fairly on in an infant’s life. For example, infants receive their first dose of hepatitis B vaccine shortly after birth and before leaving the hospital.
Other vaccinations against diseases like rubella, measles, mumps, diphtheria, tetanus, and various viruses are given in the first few months of the infant’s life. When a vaccination happens, the infant’s immune system must kick in and develop antibodies of its own. The infant is generally only partially effective in doing this after just one immunization and so a series of vaccinations are given to boost the immunity up to adequate levels.
Immunizations for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis are given at 2 months, 4 months, and 6 months when the child is still an infant. It is repeated at about 18 months and at 4-6 years in order to have immunity that will last until a booster shot is needed about ten years later. Immunizations for Haemophilus are also given at 2 months, 4 months, and 6 months, with a booster at around 15 months of age to protect against Haemophilus pneumonia and meningitis.
Poliovirus vaccinations are given at two months, four months, and six months, with a booster at 12-15 months of age. Poliovirus can be given in injectable form or in oral form as a live, attenuated virus. The disadvantage of a live virus is that it can mutate back to its original pathogenic state and can cause polio in anyone who is not protected against the polio virus.
The purpose of these and all the other immunizations given to children is to prevent these infections from happening to the child and to reduce the overall burden of these diseases to the rest of society that may not be immune to all the various diseases. Some types of infection have been eradicated or nearly eradicated, due to the efforts of immunization programs throughout the world.
When The Immune System Doesn’t Work
In young children and adults, the immune system does not work well and immunizations are ineffective in helping the individual make the necessary antibodies to the vaccines. People who are malnourished, for example, do not make antibodies well and will continue to be at risk for developing the disease. This is especially true of the elderly, who receive influenza shots every year with only some of them having the ability to make antibodies against the influenza virus.
The reason why scientists believe that the immune system is made and not born is because there are many lifestyle factors that go into having a good immune system. People with diabetes have an impairment of their immune system. The same is true of alcoholics, although the mechanism by which this occurs is not clear.
Boosting The Immune System
You can improve the functioning of the immune system by having healthy lifestyle factors. This means eating enough protein and calories in order to make sure that the immune system can make the various cells and antibodies necessary for good immune health. Habits like alcohol use, drug use, and smoking also impair the immune system and should be discontinued for better health.
There is also evidence that regular exercise can boost the immune system function. These are things you can do to support your immune system so that you can make antibodies against vaccines you receive as well as make antibodies and have healthy immune cells so that the immune system can kick in when you need it.