Human Health and Immunity

Category : UPSC


Human Health and Immunity


1.           Common Diseases in Humans


  • Salmonella typhi is a pathogenic bacterium which causes typhoid fever in human beings. These pathogens generally enter the small intestine through food and water contaminated with them and migrate to other organs through blood. Sustained high fever (\[39{}^\circ \]to\[40{}^\circ C\]), weakness, stomach pain, constipation, headache and loss of appetite are some of the common symptoms of this disease. Intestinal perforation and death may occur in severe cases.
  • Typhoid fever could be confirmed by Widal test. A classic case in medicine, that of Mary Mallon nicknamed Typhoid Mary, is worth mentioning here. She was a cook by profession and was a typhoid carrier who continued to spread typhoid for several years through the food she prepared.
  • Bacteria like Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae are responsible for the disease pneumonia in humans which infects the alveoli (air filled sacs) of the lungs. As a result of the infection, the alveoli get filled with fluid leading to severe problems in respiration.
  • The symptoms of pneumonia include fever, chills, cough and headache. In severe cases, the lips and finger nails may turn gray to bluish in colour. A healthy person acquires the infection by inhaling the droplets/aerosols released by an infected person or even by sharing glasses and utensils with an infected person.
  • Dysentery, plague, diphtheria, etc., are some of the other bacterial diseases in man.
  • Many viruses also cause diseases in human beings. Rhino viruses represent one such group of viruses which cause one of the most infectious human ailments - the common cold. They infect the nose and respiratory passage but not the lungs.
  • Some of the human diseases are caused by protozoans called Malaria, a disease man has been fighting since many years. Plasmodium, a tiny protozoan is responsible for this disease. Different species of Plasmodium (P. vivax, P. malaria and P. falciparum) are responsible for different types of malaria. Of these, malignant malaria caused by Plasmodium falciparum is the most serious one and can even be fatal.
  • Take a glance at the life cycle of Plasmodium. Plasmodium enters the human body as sporozoites (infectious form) through the bite of infected female Anopheles mosquito. The parasites initially multiply within the liver cells and then attack the red blood cells (RBCs) resulting in their rupture. The rupture of RBCs is associated with release of a toxic substance, haemozoin, which is responsible for the chill and high fever recurring every three to four days.
  • When a female Anopheles mosquito bites an infected person, these parasites enter the mosquito's body and undergo further development. The parasites multiply within them to form sporozoites that are stored in their salivary glands.
  • When these mosquitoes bite a human, the sporozoites are introduced into his/her body, thereby initiating the events mentioned above. It is interesting to note that the malarial parasite requires two hosts - human and mosquitoes - to complete its life cycle; the female Anopheles mosquito is the vector (transmitting agent) too.
  • Entamoeba histolytica is a protozoan parasite in the large intestine of human which causes amoebiasis (amoebic dysentery). Symptoms of this disease include constipation, abdominal pain and cramps, stools with excess mucous and blood clots. Houseflies act as mechanical carriers and serve to transmit the parasite from faeces of infected person to food and food products, thereby contaminating them. Drinking water and food contaminated by the faecal matter are the main source of infection.
  • Ascaris, the common round worm and Wuchereria, the filarial worm, are some of the helminths which are known to be pathogenic to man. Ascaris, an intestinal parasite causes ascariasis. Symptoms of these disease include internal bleeding, muscular pain, fever, anemia and blockage of the intestinal passage. The eggs of the parasite are excreted along with the faeces of infected persons which contaminate soil, water, plants, etc. A healthy person acquires this infection through contaminated water, vegetables, fruits, etc.
  • Wuchereria (W. bancrofti and W. malayi), the filarial worms cause a slowly developing chronic inflammation of the organs in which they live for many years, usually the lymphatic vessels of the lower limbs and the disease is called elephantiasis or filariasis.
  • The genital organs are also often affected, resulting in gross deformities. The pathogens are transmitted to a healthy person through the bite by the female mosquito vectors.
  • Many fungi belonging to the genera Microsporum, Trichophyton and Epidermophyton are responsible for ringworms which is one of the most common infectious diseases in man,
  • Fishes like Gambusia in ponds that feed on mosquito larvae are use to prevent from mosquitoes.



2.           Immunity


  • Every day we are exposed to large number of infectious agents. However, only a few of these exposures result in disease. Why? This is due to the fact that the body is able to defend itself from most of these foreign agents. This overall ability of the host to fight the disease-causing organisms, conferred by the immune system is called immunity.
  • Immunity is of two types :
  • Innate immunity
  • Innate Immunity Innate immunity is non-specific type of defence that is present at the time of birth. This is accomplished by providing different types of barriers to the entry of the foreign agents into our body. Innate immunity consist of four types of barriers.
  • Physical barriers: Skin on our body is the main barrier which prevents entry of the micro-organisms. Mucus coating of the epithelium lining the respiratory, gastrointestinal and urogenital tracts also help in trapping microbes entering our body.
  • Physiological barriers: Acid in the stomach, saliva in the mouth, tears from eyes-all prevent microbial growth.
  • Cellular barriers: Certain types of leukocytes (WBC) of our body like polymorpho-nuclear leukocytes (PMNL-neutrophils) and monocytes and natural killer (type of lymphocytes) in the blood as well as macrophages in tissues can phagocytose and destroy microbes.
  • Cytokine barriers: Virus-infected cells secrete proteins called interferons which protect non-infected cells from further viral infection.


  • Acquired Immunity
  • Acquired immunity, on the other hand, is pathogen specific. It is characterised by memory. This means that our body when it encounters a pathogen for the first time produces a response called primary response which is of low intensity.
  • Subsequent encounter with the same pathogen elicits a highly intensified secondary or anamnestic response. This is ascribed to the fact that our body appears to have memory of the first encounter.
  • The primary and secondary immune responses are carried out with the help of two special types of lymphocytes present in our blood, i.e., B-lymphocytes and Tlymphocytes. The B-lymphocytes produce an army of proteins in response to pathogens into our blood to fight with them.
  • When some human organs like heart, eye, liver, kidney fail to function satisfactorily, transplantation is the only remedy to enable the patient to live a normal life. Then a search begins - to find a suitable donor. Why is it that the organs cannot be taken from just anybody? What is it that the doctors check? Grafts from just any source - an animal, another primate, or any human beings cannot be made since the grafts would be rejected sooner or later.
  • Tissue matching, blood group matching are essential before undertaking any graft/ transplant and even after this the patient has to take immuno-suppresants all his/her life. The body is able to differentiate 'self ' and 'nonself and the cell-mediated immune response is responsible for the graft rejection.


  • When a host is exposed to antigens, which may be in the form of living or dead microbes or other proteins, antibodies are produced in the host body. This type of immunity is called active immunity.
  • Active immunity is slow and takes time to give its full effective response. Injecting the microbes deliberately during immunisation or infectious organisms gaining access into body during natural infection induce active immunity.
  • When ready-made antibodies are directly given to protect the body against foreign agents, it is called passive immunity. We know that mother's milk is considered very essential for the newbom infant. The yellowish fluid colostrum secreted by mother during the initial days of lactation has abundant antibodies (IgA) to protect the infant. The foetus also receives some antibodies from their mother, through the placenta during pregnancy. These are some examples of passive immunity.
  • Sometimes, due to genetic and other unknown reasons, the body attacks self-cells. This results in damage to the body and is called auto-immune disease. Rheumatoid arthritis which affects many people in our society is an auto-immune disease.


3.           Vaccination and Immunisation


  • The principle of immunisation or vaccination is based on the property of 'memory’ of the immune system. In vaccination, a preparation of antigenic proteins of pathogen or inactivated/weakened pathogen (vaccine) are introduced into the body.
  • The antibodies produced in the body against these antigens would neutralise the pathogenic agents during actual infection. The vaccines also generate memory - B and T - cells that recognise the pathogen quickly on subsequent exposure and overwhelm the invaders with a massive production of antibodies.
  • If a person is infected with some deadly microbes to which quick immune response is required as in tetanus, we need to directly inject the preformed antibodies, or antitoxin (a preparation containing antibodies to the toxin).
  • Even in cases of snakebites, the injection which is given to the patients, contain preformed antibodies against the snake venom. This type of immunisation is called passive immunisation.
  • Recombinant DNA technology has allowed the production of antigenic polypeptides of pathogen in bacteria or yeast. Vaccines produced using this approach allow large scale production and hence greater availability for immunisation, e.g., hepatitis B vaccine produced from yeast.


4.           Allergies


  • The exaggerated response of the immune system to certain antigens present in the environment is called allergy. The substances to which such an immune response is produced are called allergens.
  • Common examples of allergens are mites in dust, pollens, animal dander, etc. Symptoms of allergic reactions include sneezing, watery eyes, running nose and difficulty in breathing. Allergy is due to the release of chemicals like histamine and serotonin from the mast cells.
  • For determining the cause of allergy, the patient is exposed to or injected with very small doses of possible allergens, and the reactions studied. The use of drugs like anti-histamine, adrenalin and steroids quickly reduce the symptoms of allergy. Somehow, modem-day life style has resulted in lowering of immunity and more sensitivity to allergens - more and more children in metro cities of India suffer from allergies and asthma due to sensitivity to the environment.


5.           Immune System in the Body


  • The human immune system consists of lymphoid organs, tissues, cells and soluble molecules like antibodies. The immune system also plays an important role in allergic reactions, auto-immune diseases and organ transplantation.
  • Lymphoid organs are organs where origin and/or maturation and proliferation of lymphocytes occur.
  • The primary lymphoid organs are bone marrow and thymus where immature lymphocytes differentiate into antigen-sensitive lymphocytes. After maturation the lymphocytes migrate to secondary lymphoid organs like spleen, lymph nodes, tonsils, Peyer's patches of small intestine and appendix.
  • The secondary lymphoid organs provide the sites for interaction of lymphocytes with the antigen, which then proliferate to become effector cells.
  • The bone marrow is the main lymphoid organ where all blood cells including lymphocytes are produced. The thymus is a lobed organ located near the heart and beneath the breastbone. The thymus is quite large at the time of birth but keeps reducing in size with age and by the time puberty is attained it reduces to a very small size. Both bone- marrow and thymus provide micro-environments for the development and maturation of T-lymphocytes.
  • The spleen is a large beanshaped organ. It mainly contains lymphocytes and phagocytes. It acts as a filter of the blood by trapping blood-bome microorganisms.
  • Spleen also has a large reservoir of erythrocytes. The lymph nodes are small solid structures located at different points along the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes serve to trap the micro-organisms or other antigens, which happen to get into the lymph and tissue fluid.
  • Antigens trapped in the lymph nodes are responsible for the activation of lymphocytes present there and cause the immune response.
  • There is lymphoid tissue also located within the lining of the major tracts (respiratory, digestive and urogenital tracts) called mucosaassociated lymphoid tissue (MALT). It constitutes about 50 per cent of the lymphoid tissue in human body.


6.           AIDS


  • The word AIDS stands for Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome. This means deficiency of immune system, acquired during the lifetime of an individual indicating that it is not a congenital disease. 'Syndrome' means a group of symptoms.
  • AIDS was first reported in 1981 and in the last twenty-five years or so, it has spread all over the world killing more than 25 million persons.
  • AIDS is caused by the Human Immuno deficiency Virus (HIV), a member of a group of viruses called retrovirus, which have an envelope enclosing the RNA genome.
  • Transmission of HIV-infection generally occurs by sexual contact with infected person, by transfusion of contaminated blood and blood products, by sharing infected needles as in the case of intravenous drug abusers and from infected mother to her child through placenta.
  • After getting into the body of the person, the virus enters into macrophages where RNA genome of the virus replicates to form viral DNA with the help of the enzyme reverse transcriptase.
  • This viral DNA gets incorporated into host cell's DNA and directs the infected cells to produce virus particles.
  • The macrophages continue to produce virus and in this way acts like a HIV factory. Simultaneously, HIV enters into helper T-lymphocytes (TH), replicates and produce progeny viruses. The progeny viruses released in the blood attack other helper T-lymphocytes.
  • This is repeated leading to a progressive decrease in the number of helper T-lymphocytes in the body of the infected person. During this period, the person suffers from bouts of fever, diarrhoea and weight loss.
  • Due to decrease in the number of helper T-lymphocytes, the person starts suffering from infections that could have been otherwise overcome such as those due to bacteria especially Mycobacterium, viruses, fungi and even parasites like Toxoplasma.
  • The patient becomes so immuno-deficient that he/she is unable to protect himself/herself against these infections. A widely used diagnostic test for AIDS is enzyme linked immuno-sorbent assay (ELISA). Treatment of AIDS with anti-retroviral drugs is only partially effective. They can only prolong the life of the patient but cannot prevent death, which is inevitable.


7.           Cancer


  • In our body, cell growth and differentiation is highly controlled and regulated. In cancer cells, there is breakdown of these regulatory mechanisms. Normal cells show a property called contact inhibition by virtue of which contact with other cells inhibits their uncontrolled growth. Cancer cells appears to have lost this property. As a result of this, cancerous cells just continue to divide giving rise to masses of cells called tumors.
  • Tumors are of two types: benign and malignant. Benign tumors normally remain confined to their original location and do not spread to other parts of the body and cause little damage. The malignant tumors, on the other hand are a mass of proliferating cells called neoplastic or tumor cells. These cells grow very rapidly, invading and damaging the surrounding normal tissues.
  • As these cells actively divide and grow they also starve the normal cells by competing for vital nutrients. Cells sloughed from such tumors reach distant sites through blood, and wherever they get lodged in the body, they start a new tumor there. This property called metastasis is the most feared property of malignant tumors.
  • Transformation of normal cells into cancerous neoplastic cells may be induced by physical, chemical or biological agents. These agents are called carcinogens,
  • Ionising radiations like X-rays and gamma rays and non-ionizing radiations like UV cause DNA damage leading to neoplastic transformation.
  • The chemical carcinogens present in tobacco smoke have been identified as a major cause of lung cancer.
  • Cancer causing viruses called oncogenic viruses have genes called viral oncogenes. Furthermore, several genes called cellular oncogenes or proto oncogenes have been identified in normal cells which, when activated under certain conditions, could lead to oncogenic transformation of the cells.
  • Early detection of cancers is essential as it allows the disease to be treated successfully in many cases. Cancer detection is based on biopsy and histopathological studies of the tissue and blood and bone marrow tests for increased cell counts in the case of leukemias.
  • In biopsy, a piece of the suspected tissue cut into thin sections is stained and examined under microscope (histopathological studies) by a pathologist.
  • Techniques like radiography (use of X-rays), CT (computed tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) are very useful to detect cancers of the internal organs.
  • Computed tomography uses X-rays to generate a three-dimensional image of the internals of an object. MRI uses strong magnetic fields and non-ionising radiations to accurately detect pathological and physiological changes in the living tissue.
  • The common approaches for treatment of cancer are surgery, radiation therapy and immunotherapy.
  • In radiotherapy, tumor cells are irradiated lethally, taking proper care of the normal tissues surrounding the tumor mass. Several chemotherapeutic drugs are used to kill cancerous cells. Some of these are specific for particular tumors.
  • Majority of drugs have side effects like hair loss, anemia, etc. Most cancers are treated by combination of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
  • Tumor cells have been shown to avoid detection and destruction by immune system. Therefore, the patients are given substances called biological response modifiers such as a-interferon which activates their immune system and helps in destroying the tumor.


8.           Drugs and Alcohol Abuse


  • The drugs, which are commonly abused are opioids, cannabinoids and coca alkaloids. Majority of these are obtained from flowering plants. Some are obtained from fungi.
  • Opioids are the drugs, which bind to specific opioid receptors present in our central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract. Heroin, commonly called smack is chemically diacetylmorphine which is a white, odourless, bitter crystalline compound. This is obtained by acetylation of morphine, which is extracted from the latex of poppy plant Papaver somniferum.
  • Generally taken by snorting and injection, heroin is a depressant and slows down body functions.
  • Cannabinoids are a group of chemicals, which interact with cannabinoid receptors present principally in the brain. Natural cannabinoids are obtained from the inflorescences of the plant Cannabis sativa.
  • The flower tops, leaves and the resin of cannabis plant are used in various combinations to produce marijuana, hashish, charas and ganja. Generally taken by inhalation and oral ingestion, these are known for their effects on cardiovascular system of the body.
  • Coca alkaloid or cocaine is obtained from coca plant Erythroxylum coca, native to South America. It interferes with the transport of the neuro-transmitter dopamine. Cocaine, commonly called coke or crack is usually snorted. It has a potent stimulating action on central nervous system, producing a sense of euphoria and increased energy. Excessive dosage of cocaine causes hallucinations.
  • These days cannabinoids are also being abused by some sportspersons.
  • Drugs like barbiturates, amphetamines, benzodiazepines, and other similar drugs, that are normally used as medicines to help patients cope with mental illnesses like depression and insomnia, are often abused. Morphine is a very effective sedative and painkiller, and is very useful in patients who have undergone surgery.
  • Tobacco contains a large number of chemical substances including nicotine, an alkaloid. Nicotine stimulates adrenal gland to release adrenaline and nor-adrenaline into blood circulation, both of which raise blood pressure and increase heart rate.
  • Smoking is associated with increased incidence of cancers of lung, urinary bladder and throat, bronchitis, emphysema, coronary heart disease, gastric ulcer, etc.
  • Tobacco chewing is associated with increased risk of cancer of the oral cavity. Smoking increases carbon monoxide (CO) content in blood and reduces the concentration of haembound oxygen. This causes oxygen deficiency in the body.


9.           Important Facts


  • For many years, everybody used to think that peptic ulcers, which cause acidity-related pain and bleeding in the stomach and duodenum, were because of lifestyle reasons. Everybody thought that a stressful life led to a lot of acid secretion in the stomach, and eventually caused peptic ulcers.
  • Then two Australians made a discovery that a bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, was responsible for peptic ulcers. Robin Warren (born 1937), a pathologist from Perth, Australia, saw these small curved bacteria in the lower part of the stomach in many patients. He noticed that signs of inflammation were always present around these bacteria. Barry Marshall (born 1951), a young clinical fellow, became interested in Warren's findings and succeeded in cultivating the bacteria from these sources.
  • In treatment studies, Marshall and Warren showed that patients could be cured of peptic ulcer only when the bacteria were killed off from the stomach. Thanks to this pioneering discovery by Marshall and Warren, peptic ulcer disease is no longer a chronic, frequently disabling condition, but a disease that can be cured by a short period of treatment with antibiotics.
  • For this achievement, Marshall and Warren (seen in the picture) received the Nobel prize for physiology and medicine in 2005.
  • Antibiotics are commonly block biochemical pathways important for bacteria. Many bacteria, for example, make a cell-wall to protect themselves.
  • The antibiotic penicillin blocks the bacterial processes that build the cell wall. As a result, the growing bacteria become unable to make cell-walls, and die easily. Human cells don't make a cell-wall anyway, so penicillin cannot have such an effect on us.
  • Penicillin will have this effect on any bacteria that use such processes for making cell-walls. Similarly, many antibiotics work against many species of bacteria rather than simply working against one.
  • But viruses do not use these pathways at all, and that is the reason why antibiotics do not work against viral infections. If we have a common cold, taking antibiotics does not reduce the severity or the duration of the disease. However, if we also get a bacterial infection along with the viral cold, taking antibiotics will help. Even then, the antibiotic will work only against the bacterial part of the infection, not the viral infection.
  • Anti-viral medicines is harder than making antibacterial medicines is that viruses have few biochemical mechanisms of their own. They enter our cells and use our machinery for their life processes. This means that there are relatively few virus-specific targets to aim at. Despite this limitation, there are now effective anti-viral drugs, for example, the drugs that keep HIV infection under control.
  • In HIV infection, the virus goes to the immune system and damages its function. Thus, many of the effects of HIV-AIDS are because the body can no longer fight off the many minor infections that we face every day. Instead, every small cold can become pneumonia. Similarly, a minor gut infection can produce major diarrhoea with blood loss. Ultimately, it is these other infections that kill people suffering from HIV-AIDS.
  • Traditional Indian and Chinese medicinal systems sometimes deliberately rubbed the skin crusts from smallpox victims into the skin of healthy people. They thus hoped to induce a mild form of smallpox that would create resistance against the disease.
  • Famously, two centuries ago, an English physician named Edward Jenner, realised that milkmaids who had had cowpox did not catch smallpox even during epidemics. Cowpox is a very mild disease. Jenner tried deliberately giving cowpox to people.
  • And found that they were now resistant to smallpox. This was because the smallpox virus is closely related to the cowpox virus. 'Cow" is 'vacca9 in Latin, and cowpox is 'vaccinia’. From these roots, the word 'vaccination' has come into our usage.
  • Some hepatitis viruses, which cause jaundice, are transmitted through water. There is a vaccine for one of them, hepatitis A, in the market. But the majority of children in many parts of India are already immune to hepatitis A by the time they are five years old. This is because they are exposed to the virus through water.

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