The Classifications of Adaptive Immunity


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Table titled mechanism of Acquisition of Immunity. Passive and Natural: Immunity acquired from antibodies passed through breast milk or placenta. Passive and Artificial: Immunity gained through antibodies harvested from another animal. Active and Natural: Immunity Gained through illness and recovery. Active and Artificial: Immunity gained through a vaccine.
The four classifications of immunity. (credit top left photo: modification of work by USDA; credit top right photo: modification of work by “Michaelberry”/Wikimedia; credit bottom left photo: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit bottom right photo: modification of work by Friskila Silitonga, Indonesia, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

All forms of adaptive immunity can be described as either active or passive. Active immunity refers to the activation of an individual’s own adaptive immune defenses, whereas passive immunity refers to the transfer of adaptive immune defenses from another individual or animal. Active and passive immunity can be further subdivided based on whether the protection is acquired naturally or artificially.

Natural active immunity is adaptive immunity that develops after natural exposure to a pathogen. Examples would include the lifelong immunity that develops after recovery from a chickenpox or measles infection (although an acute infection is not always necessary to activate adaptive immunity). The length of time that an individual is protected can vary substantially depending upon the pathogen and antigens involved. For example, activation of adaptive immunity by protein spike structures during an intracellular viral infection can activate lifelong immunity, whereas activation by carbohydrate capsule antigens during an extracellular bacterial infection may activate shorter-term immunity.

Natural passive immunity involves the natural passage of antibodies from a mother to her child before and after birth. IgG is the only antibody class that can cross the placenta from mother’s blood to the fetal blood supply. Placental transfer of IgG is an important passive immune defense for the infant, lasting up to six months after birth. Secretory IgA can also be transferred from mother to infant through breast milk.

Artificial passive immunity refers to the transfer of antibodies produced by a donor (human or animal) to another individual. This transfer of antibodies may be done as a prophylactic measure (i.e., to prevent disease after exposure to a pathogen) or as a strategy for treating an active infection. For example, artificial passive immunity is commonly used for post-exposure prophylaxis against rabies, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and chickenpox (in high risk individuals). Active infections treated by artificial passive immunity include cytomegalovirus infections in immunocompromised patients and Ebola virus infections. In 1995, eight patients in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with active Ebola infections were treated with blood transfusions from patients who were recovering from Ebola. Only one of the eight patients died (a 12.5% mortality rate), which was much lower than the expected 80% mortality rate for Ebola in untreated patients. Artificial passive immunity is also used for the treatment of diseases caused by bacterial toxins, including tetanus, botulism, and diphtheria.

Artificial active immunity is the foundation for vaccination. It involves the activation of adaptive immunity through the deliberate exposure of an individual to weakened or inactivated pathogens, or preparations consisting of key pathogen antigens.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: