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Why Isn’t There A Shot Against Viral Infection?

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

Most sicknesses in the world have their origins in either a bacterial or viral agent that attacks the patient’s body. Despite their similar functions, these two go about their intrusions very differently, to the point where the countermeasures to one will not necessarily be effective against the other. 


The Science


A bacterial infection involves malignant cells entering your body and damaging it, either by disrupting normal cell function, stealing food particles, or outright attacking your cells. Because these are whole cells, they can be treated by antibiotics and other drugs intended to boost your immune response or combat the bacteria directly. 

Viruses are not whole cells. Compared to bacteria, they are less complex–only a protein shell containing a single strand of viral genetic material. Some viruses are even less developed, carrying only RNA instead of the DNA that makes up all living cells. This material is introduced to host cells and integrates itself into their genetic cycle, entering a hidden phase known as the lysogenic phase. 

Because a virus in a lysogenic phase is actually part of its host cell’s DNA, countermeasures intended to kill off bacteria tend to be ineffective–after all, those are made with a seperate, obviously malignant, cell in mind. The white blood cells and antibodies from your body’s immune system will not attack the host cell, as they identify it as part of itself. White blood cells and antibodies can only chase down viruses as they switch to their active, or lytic, forms and try to move between cells–a comparatively short period of time.


The combination of certain defenses being ineffective and the shorter period of time available for the immune system to fight the virus off mean that the white blood cells in your body are not enough. They are too few in number and move too slowly to be as effective as they are with bacteria. The solution that the body creates is antibodies, a smaller particle made to bind to the virus and restrict it from entering a cell until a white blood cell can dispose of it safely. 

With bacterial infections, it is possible to stimulate the production of antibodies by introducing a dead or weakened strain of the bacteria to the body. This prompts an immune response to begin ahead of time and causes the body to ready antigens, the cells that create antibodies, specifically for the disease in question. In a viral infection, though, the lack of actual cell parts makes it difficult to produce such a substance–without organelles or a membrane, the virus will disappear completely if killed, making it unusable as a vaccine. 


What Does This Mean?


Your body starts the immune response by looking at a germ that’s been introduced into it and analyzing the germ to make better defenses. A vaccine introduces a lot of these dead germs to your body to speed things up. A virus isn’t a germ, though–it’s just a piece of RNA that hijacks your cells and makes them malfunction. Because there’s no germ to find, the immune system and vaccinations are far less effective.


So What Should I Do?


Whether vaccination is an option or not, the best course of action is to keep yourself as healthy as possible so your body can reject any invaders, whether bacteria, virus, or other type of pathogen. 


  • Consume foods high in the proteins and vitamins the body uses as the raw materials in antibodies. Best bets are fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and other foods high in vitamins and minerals.
  • Get adequate sleep each night to keep your body functioning well.
  • Exercise reasonably to keep your body in top germ-fighting shape.
  • Manage stress levels so your body can focus on fighting germs.

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