BOOST BABY’S IMMUNE SYSTEM
The immune system is your body’s reaction force against attacks from bad guys, from inside and out. But how does it work exactly?
WHAT MAKES US ILL? Viral and bacterial infections are the biggest culprits by far. These two villains cause illnesses like cold, flu, mumps, chicken pox, gastroenteritis and ear infections.
Our immune system’s main job is to protect us against these and other infections. And it does so in three ways:
It creates a barrier that prevents bacteria and viruses from entering the body.
If the bugs do find a way in, the immune system kicks in immediately first to recognise the virus or bacteria (and to later remember it) and secondly to shut it out.
If the germ does become comfortable in the human body and multiplies, the immune system starts to eliminate it.
ANATOMY OF YOUR IMMUNITY
Your immune system consists of various components spread throughout your body. Every component has its own specific function.
One of the most obvious is your skin, which is the main boundary between germs and your body. Just like cling wrap protects a sandwich against germs, your skin stops certain organisms from entering your body.
Our nose, mouth and eyes are other ports through which germs can gain easy access to our bodies. In such cases, tears and mucus are the soldiers standing by
to kick out these bugs. But some nasty germs do end up finding a way into our body. Rest assured, inside your body they’ll have to pass by another battalion of the immunity army. These soldiers are all born, taken care of or prepared for battle against harmful viruses and bacteria in one of the following bases:
THYMUS GLAND The thymus gland is located inside your chest – roughly between your sternum and your heart – and is responsible for the production of T-cells.
Among other things these cells secrete small proteins that launch attacks on infected, foreign and cancerous cells.
They literally perforate these cells so that other components of the immune system have an easier time getting rid of them. The thymus gland is especially important for newborns, because without it a baby’s immune system will collapse, and the baby will die.
BONE MARROW Bone marrow produces new red and white blood cells, with the latter probably playing the most important role in the immune system.
White blood cells join forces to destroy bacteria and viruses that invade your body, and are also responsible for making antibodies. Antibodies mark “attackers” in your body so that the fighter cells of the immune system can decimate them.
SPLEEN This organ filters our blood and is constantly on the lookout for foreign cells in our blood or red blood cells that need replacement. People who have had their spleens removed can get by, but they fall ill much more often.
LYMPHATIC SYSTEM Doctors often tell parents to be vigilant for swollen lymph nodes in their children’s necks. Lymph nodes swell when our body is fighting certain bacterial infections – literally because of the extra cells in the nodes that do battle with bacteria.
COMPLEMENT SYSTEM The liver produces protein molecules (or complements). These molecules bind in different orders to fulfil various functions such as helping white blood cells consume foreign cells.
BORN THIS WAY? All the cells you need for immunity against specific illnesses are present when you are born, but you have to be exposed to the specific germ first to build immunity against it. This process continues throughout your life.
Doctors distinguish between resistance with which you’re born (natural immunity) and resistance that develops over time (acquired immunity). The latter is what you get after being exposed to illnesses.
Some of the soldiers in your immune system have the ability to recognise and remember foreign cells after their first exposure, and then when a second meeting occurs, to launch an attack against them, explains Dr Barbra-ann Saunders from the Free State University’s paediatric department.
Although a healthy baby is born with all the necessary cells for a normal immune system, newborns all have a physiological deficiency.
“And the smaller or more premature the baby, the more pronounced the immune deficiency,” Barbra-ann says.
Mom transfers her antibodies to her unborn baby, but that only happens quite late in the pregnancy. This transfer protects the baby for approximately the first six months of his life. If a baby is born too early, this transfer has sometimes not yet taken place.
After birth a baby is exposed to various antigens (substances that trigger a backlash in the body; germs in this case). Antibodies are produced as a result.
“Initially, the antibodies are not of a good quality, but by about eight weeks, babies can start producing good-quality antibodies,” Barbra-ann explains.
By six months there will be enough antibodies, but immune-system maturity is still a way off. The various antibodies become mature at different ages: some at four or five years, others only at seven or eight and quite a few only during the teenage years.
It’s hard to believe but illness is actually a good thing for your little one, because every time he falls ill, the lymphocytes of the immune system are exposed to another antigen.
In this way antibodies develop that protect your child against that specific organism, when the germ strikes again.
This is exactly why immunisation is so effective – it exposes the body to a specific antigen (germ) so that antibodies develop and your child is protected against that dangerous illness.