In the past nine months or so since Covid-19 made its appearance in the United States, you’ve probably heard the term “herd immunity” come up in various conversations and news articles. Phrases like, “we just need to get herd immunity” or “that country has better numbers because they’ve achieved herd immunity” may have you wondering, what exactly is herd immunity and why is it important to the Covid-19 pandemic? Here’s a quick look at herd immunity and how a vaccine will help achieve it.
What is herd immunity?
Herd immunity, also known as population immunity, is when a population can be protected from a certain virus if a threshold of people with the antibodies to fight the virus is reached, lowering the overall amount of the virus that is able to spread in the whole population. In other words, if enough people have protection from the virus in a population, herd immunity starts to work.
How is herd immunity achieved?
Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it. According to the World Health Organization:
“Attempts to reach ‘herd immunity’ through exposing people to a virus are scientifically problematic and unethical. Letting COVID-19 spread through populations, of any age or health status will lead to unnecessary infections, suffering and death.”
Instead, achieving herd immunity with safe and effective vaccines makes diseases rarer and saves lives. This is why there has been so much focus placed on the race for a Covid-19 vaccine.
How do vaccines help achieve herd immunity?
Vaccines create proteins, called antibodies, that are trained to fight disease, but work without making us sick. When people are vaccinated, they are preventing the transmission of a disease because they are protected from getting the disease and aren’t able to pass it on. When the majority of a population is vaccinated, the overall amount of the virus that’s able to spread is lowered.
When will a Covid-19 vaccine be available?
There are reports that the first does of a Covid-19 vaccine may begin rolling out to certain groups before the end of 2020. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention:
“The goal for Operation Warp Speed is to deliver safe vaccines that work, with the first supply becoming available before the end of 2020. When a vaccine is authorized or approved in the United States, there may not be enough doses available for all adults. Supplies will increase over time, and all adults should be able to get vaccinated later in 2021. However, a COVID-19 vaccine may not be available for young children until more studies are completed.”
What should I do until a vaccine is available?
Until a vaccine is available, it’s crucial to continue to take preventative measures to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus, including wearing a mask or face covering, maintaining six feet of social distancing, washing your hands and using hand sanitizer, avoiding large gatherings, and calling your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms or think you may have been exposed to the virus.
Find out more about the science behind herd immunity by watching or reading the interview below with WHO’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan.
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