4 min read
Mankind’s remarkable ability to fight infections.
Given the increasing sadness associated with the coronavirus pandemic, I was slow to write about our remarkable abilities to fight infections. Yet, watching how international experts are utilizing (capitalizing on) the normal human body’s defense mechanisms to heal and protect us, I was reminded that there is much to marvel at. These amazing functions seem to require the foresight of our Maker.
Normally, billions of white cells, including complex B and T lymphocytes, neutrophils, macrophages, dendritic cells, and plasma cells, stand guard throughout the body, like sentinels with a whole host of weapons on hand. When confronted by a foreign intruder, they quickly determine if this new protein(s), DNA or RNA particle, bacteria, fungus, virus or a changed cell (cancer) is a friend or foe. If deemed worrisome, they immediately punch holes in it with tiny grenades called “complement” and tear it apart, literally limb by limb. Select pieces are sent back to the rear-lines (lymph nodes) for analysis.
No one knows quite how all this is accomplished, but nothing about it is random. Parts analysis leads to manufacturing antibodies, often Y-shaped chemicals to capture all or part of the intruder in the wedge of the Y. Antibodies will often attach to invaders at specific locations along its outer shell. Think of a submicroscopic porcupine rolled into a ball. If the virus foreigner were covered with triangular spikes, the antibodies might have “catcher mitts” with triangular-shaped pouches. Electrical charges and specific chemical bonds also play a roll. After that, the foreigner is beaten to a pulp, damaged beyond recognition, taken to be eaten by select cells or destroyed by acid.
Newly-manufactured, shorter-lived antibodies are the first on the scene. Days to weeks later, smaller, often lifelong, antibodies begin arriving. They may also become part of one’s permanent immunity. For example, if you were exposed to and/or caught the mumps, your antibodies would keep you immune to mumps forever. The memory banks in the immune system remember all details. Think of a library with tens of millions of books with a means to retrieve precise information from a single sentence, maybe phrase, in any book in any language in a nanosecond. It’s similar to our search engines, but much faster and more precise.
If there is an overwhelming army of invaders, the sentinels will send for emergency reinforcements. White cells, like the calvary, rapidly arrive by the millions. They travel through lymph channels, race from other organs and squeeze in and out of blood vessels. Pus is often the result of these battles. This is composed of millions of dead invaders and white cells, various bodily fluids, and all sorts of spent biological weapons, tools, and chemicals. Recall teenage pimples or any abscess; the fight is concluded when the body moves these pus pockets to the skin surface for drainage. Analgesics help us with pain, like endorphins, and they treat fever. It should be noted, however, that a fever is a natural defense and many invading organisms cannot tolerate heat.
Millions of different foreign proteins enter our body every day through breaks in the skin, our gums and gut while eating, our nose and lungs while inhaling, and even through portals in the eyes from another person’s sneeze or cough. Most intruders are benign. And many others are non-life threatening irritants, like allergies, which prompt a slightly different response. The deadly invasions, of course, must be confronted immediately.
Immunization (vaccination) is the ultimate tool to fighting these kinds of infections. Doctors maximize what the body normally does. One must keep in mind that we have never “seen” this coronavirus before. If it were the measles and you had been vaccinated as a child (like tetanus, mumps, and hepatitis C), your body would quickly recognize the intruder, immediately call for antibodies to destroy it.
Unfortunately, pandemics are not new. With urban crowding, international travel, our encroachment on forests and jungles, increasing antibiotic resistance, poverty, ignorance, the eating of certain wildlife and bioterrorism, they have and/or will likely become more common. The closest example to the corona scourge is the 2009 Flu Pandemic, aka Swine flu (H1N1), where an estimated 250,000 people died worldwide. This disease primarily attacked young adults, our most healthy members of society. These were the ones who could mount the most vigorous response. But it was too vigorous sometimes. The internal cure became worse than the disease. For example, a “house-fire” or one-alarm fire was called in as a twenty-alarm fire and the entire neighborhood was mistakenly destroyed by the fight. With H1N1 lungs were destroyed by the response. One might speculate that corona, like ebola and many bat viruses, are part of certain wildlife’s natural defenses and we’re now tripping over them, collecting them, eating them. They might be warnings to stay away.