Have you seen the film “Tangled”? The bit when Flynn Ryder gets away with the tiara in the satchel? His mug shot is then stapled to trees in the hope that the public would spot him and turn him in.
Or what about those films in the Wild West? The criminal Out-of-Towner comes swashbuckling into the trading post, tearing down his mug shot before bursting through the saloon doors…
Trees, posts and poles these days tend to be reserved for animals that have gone missing, with social media and television taking up the search for people.
The vision is the same, however. Show enough members of the public a face or description and someone will be able to help. This system has worked for hundreds of years, but humans weren’t the first to think of it.
Biology was way ahead of you.
Hi, Alina here.
Me and my friends and cousins make the instructions for your body. We also make them for every other living thing out there. You might know us as DNA. Today we are inside the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV for short).
It’s our job as DNA in the HPV to make the instructions that cause the virus to infect your body.
If your body is going to catch us, however, your immune system must first realise that we have invaded. We sneak in under the radar. It takes your immune system a while to realise we are even there. This gives us the perfect opportunity to enter loads of your cells and produce even more HPV viruses and possibly make you very ill in the process.
When your immune system does realise, however, it is pretty efficient at stopping us in our tracks. There are 150 types of HPV and it can stop most of them. Once we have been discovered, your immune system circulates a description of us throughout your body. If we try to invade again, your immune system is ready to pounce and we hardly ever get to make you ill.
Scientists can copy this immune reaction. They can prevent some of the worse viral infections getting a foothold and destroying your health. They call their invention a vaccine.
Why Vaccinate against HPV?
Vaccinations are like stapling a Wanted Poster inside your body and alerting your immune system to be on the look-out for us. Ideally you get these posters before your body has seen our virus. It can start defending you immediately should the virus dare to try and get in.
Our HPV viruses live within your skin and if you get really, really close (it normally happens when people are in love) they can jump from one human to another. They’re not fussy whether you are male or female either, as long as you are human (our HPVs just aren’t into animals or plants).
Scientists started picking on us in the HPV years ago. There are a few types in particular that you humans don’t like. (Types 6 and 11 cause warts in rather intimate places and types 16 and 18 might give you cancer in those same places – especially if you are a girl).
Does the HPV Vaccine work?
In 2006, after loads of testing in the laboratory and then on tens of thousands of people (to make sure it was safe), a new vaccine was made available. It was designed specifically to warn your body about us.
You get a shot in your arm (right into the muscle). The vaccine is made up of some parts of our virus (not the whole virus, though, so it can’t infect any of your cells) and a few other ingredients to dissolve them. Your arm might be a bit itchy or swollen for a while. (Your body isn’t keen on new stuff going in through your muscle). Now the description of our virus can be circulated. The virus pieces in the vaccine are enough to make sure your immune system recognises us if we invade.
You might get a bit tired or feel a bit sick after the injection. That’s your immune system making sure everyone knows what we look like. (A tiny number of people become very poorly. Especially those whose immune systems didn’t work very well to begin with or who are allergic to the ingredients in the vaccine.)
Once it knows what we look like, your immune system needs a quick practice before it is ready for the real virus. A second jab after 6 or 12 months means it gets to check how well it recognises us. Your body can make sure it really does know what our HPV virus looks like.
Does it really work?
Apparently this description works much better if the immune system is on the look-out before we can infect you. This is why you might get the vaccination at school when you are about 12 (and ideally before age 15).
Your immune system is really good at learning what we look like. Since people have been having these vaccinations, we haven’t been able to infect any of them at all! These pesky Wanted Posters in your body work particularly well in girls.
We haven’t yet worked out a way to avoid being spotted once you have been vaccinated, so until we do, you should be safe from us.