Immunology Is About More Than Just Vaccines and Infectious Disease
For some diseases, immunization programs may be the best or even the only eff ective defense.
At the top of this list are infectious diseases that can cause serious illness or even death in unvaccinated individuals, especially those transmitted by microbes that also spread rapidly between hosts.
However, vaccination is not the only way to prevent or treat infectious disease.
First and foremost is preventing infection, where access to clean water, good hygiene practices, and nutrient-rich diets can all inhibit transmission of infectious agents.
Second, some infectious diseases are self-limiting, easily treatable, and nonlethal for most individuals, making them unlikely targets for costly vaccination programs.
These include the common cold, caused by the Rhinovirus, and cold sores that result from Herpes Simplex Virus infection.
Finally, some infectious agents are just not amenable to vaccination.
This could be due to a range of factors, such as the number of different molecular variants of the organism, the complexity of the regimen required to generate protective immunity, or an inability to establish the needed immunologic memory responses.
One major breakthrough in the treatment of infectious disease came when the first antibiotics were introduced in the 1920s.
Currently there are more than a hundred different antibiotics on the market, although most fall into just six or seven categories based on their mode of action.
Antibiotics are chemical agents designed to destroy certain types of bacteria.
They are ineffective against other types of infectious agents, as well as some bacterial species.
One particularly worrying trend is the steady rise in antibiotic resistance among strains traditionally amenable to these drugs, making the design of next-generation antibiotics and new classes of drugs increasingly important.
Although antiviral drugs are also available, most are not eff ective against many of the most common viruses, including influenza.
Th is makes preventive vaccination the only real recourse against many debilitating infectious agents, even those that rarely cause mortality in healthy adults.
For instance, because of the high mutation rate of the influenza virus, each year a new fl u vaccine must be prepared based on a prediction of the prominent genotypes likely to be encountered in the next season.
Some years this vaccine is more effective than others. If and when a more lethal and unexpected pandemic strain arises, there will be a race between its spread and the manufacture and administration of a new vaccine.
With the current ease of worldwide travel, present-day emergence of a pandemic strain of influenza could dwarf the devastation wrought by the 1918 flu pandemic, which left up to 50 million dead.
However, the eradication of infectious disease is not the only worthy goal of immunology research.
Thanks to many technical advances allowing scientific discoveries to move efficiently from the bench to the bedside, clinicians can now manipulate the immune response in ways never before possible. For example, treatments to boost, inhibit, or redirect the specific efforts of immune cells are being applied to treat autoimmune disease, cancer, and allergy, as well as other chronic disorders.
These efforts are already extending and saving lives. Likewise, a clearer understanding of immunity has highlighted the interconnected nature of body systems, providing unique insights into areas such as cell biology, human genetics, and metabolism.
While a cure for AIDS and a vaccine to prevent HIV infection are still the primary targets for many scientists who study this disease, a great deal of basic science knowledge has been gleaned from the study of just this one virus and its interaction with the human immune system.