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Immunology Is Where Intuition Goes to Die

Even the word immunity creates confusion. When immunologists use it, they simply mean that the immune system has responded to a pathogen—for example, by producing antibodies or mustering defensive cells. When everyone else uses the term, they mean (and hope) that they are protected from infection—that they are immune. But, annoyingly, an immune response doesn’t necessarily provide immunity in this colloquial sense. It all depends on how effective, numerous, and durable those antibodies and cells are.

That system may be vexingly complex, but it is also both efficient and resilient in a way that our society could take lessons from. It prepares in advance, and learns from its past. It has many redundancies in case any one defense fails. It acts fast, but has checks and balances to prevent overreactions. And, in the main, it just works. Despite the multitude of infectious threats that constantly surround us, most people spend most of the time not being sick.

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