Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
Primary immune deficiencies
Secondary immune deficiencies
Severe combined immunodeficiency disease (SCID)
Immune deficiencies arise when one or more of the parts of the immune system are missing or not working correctly, leaving the body less able to fight disease-causing agents. There are two types of these deficiencies: primary, or inherited, immune deficiencies and secondary, or acquired, immune deficiencies.
The immune system has many parts that work together to protect the body from foreign invaders, such as microorganisms * and toxins * . When any segment of the immune system is absent or breaks down, it can lead to an immune deficiency. With so many elements of the immune system, there are more than 80 different types of primary immune deficiencies. They range from those that have severe and sometimes fatal effects to mild diseases that cause people few, if any, problems. About half a million people in the United States have some type of primary immune deficiency, with more boys than girls affected by these conditions.
Secondary immune deficiencies are much more common than inherited deficiencies. Unlike patients with primary immune deficiencies, people with secondary immune deficiencies are born with a healthy immune system, but sometime later in life the system becomes weakened or damaged. Both primary and secondary deficiencies typically lead to frequent infections and sometimes to additional medical problems, including certain cancers. These people often experience a variety of skin, respiratory, and bone problems as well, and they are more likely to have autoimmune diseases * .
* microorganisms are tiny organisms that can be seen only using a microscope. Types of microorganisms include fungi, bacteria, and viruses.
* toxins are poisons that harm the body.
* autoimmune (aw-toh-ih-MYOON) diseases are diseases in which the body's immune system attacks some of the body's own normal tissues and cells.
* lymph (LIMF) nodes are small, bean-shaped masses of tissue that contain immune system cells that fight harmful microorganisms. Lymph nodes may swell during infections.
The immune system consists of a group of organs, cells, and a specialized system called the lymphatic (lim-FAH-tik) system that helps clear infectious agents from the body. Together, they guard the body against infectious diseases. The lymphatic system is a key part of the immune system: it consists of lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes * , and the thymus (THY-mus) and spleen. Lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels transport lymph, a clear fluid that contains white blood cells called lymphocytes (LIM-fo-sites), throughout the body. The lymphocytes mature in the thymus, a gland located behind the breastbone. The spleen, an organ that is the center of certain immune system activities, is found in the upper-left side of the abdomen. Lymphatic tissue also is found in other locations throughout the body, including the tonsils * and the appendix * .
When a foreign substance or microorganism enters the body, phagocytes (FAH-go-sites) often are the first cells on the scene. These large scavenger white blood cells patrol the bloodstream, looking for possible invaders. When they find one, they engulf, digest, and destroy the intruder.
Other components of the immune response react when presented with specific antigens * . The most important players in this fight are two types of lymphocytes that learn to "recognize" and destroy the foreign invaders.
B cells, the first type, are white blood cells that produce antibodies * , which circulate in the blood and lymph streams. The first time B cells encounter a new foreign substance, they make antibodies in response to the intruder's antigens. When the antibodies come across that specific antigen again, they attach themselves to it, marking it (and with it, the entire foreign substance or microorganism) for destruction by other cells. Antibodies also summon phagocytes and body chemicals, such as complement proteins * , to the site of an infection and move them into action against the antigens.
T cells, the second type, are specialized white blood cells that have several roles. They monitor and coordinate the entire immune response, which includes recruiting many different cells to take part in that response. Some T cells, the T helper cells, signal the B cells to start making antibodies. Other T cells, the T killer cells, attack and destroy substances that they recognize as foreign. Once the foreign antigens have been defeated, cleanup crews of scavenger phagocytes called neutrophils (NU-tro-fils), a type of white blood cell that can surround and destroy invading organisms, and macrophages (MAH-kro-fay-jez), another form of engulf-and-destroy cell, arrive to clear up remains of the infection.
A genetic * abnormality in any type of cell of the immune system can lead to a primary immune deficiency. Some of these deficiencies produce no symptoms, whereas others cause severe symptoms and may even be fatal. Although primary immune deficiencies are present at birth, some patients do not begin to show signs of the condition until later in childhood or even beyond childhood.
* tonsils are paired clusters of lymph tissues in the throat that help protect the body from bacteria and viruses that enter through a person's nose or mouth.
* appendix (ah-PEN-diks) is the narrow, finger-shaped organ that branches off the part of the large intestine in the lower right side of the abdomen. Although the organ is not known to have any vital function, the tissue of the appendix is populated by cells of the immune system,