By Steve Blanchard - October 19, 2021
Gen. Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. secretary of state, died Oct. 18 due to COVID-19 complications despite being vaccinated for the disease. The 84-year-old also had multiple myeloma, a cancer of blood cells that are a vital part of the body’s immune system.
Cancer therapies and multiple myeloma itself can suppress the immune system, which can make a patient more at risk for an infection despite vaccination status, according to Dr. Rachid Baz, a senior member of the Moffitt Cancer Center’s Department of Malignant Hematology.
The cancer center has studied the efficacy of the COVID vaccine for patients with multiple myeloma and has found that the risk of infections remains high for those patients, regardless of their vaccination status.
“Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells, which are part of the immune system and as such the cancer can ‘hijack’ the immune system and put the patient at risk for infectious complications,” Baz said. “Therapies used to treat multiple myeloma can further suppress the immune system and place the patient at increased risk for infection.”
"Therapies used to treat multiple myeloma can further suppress the immune system and place the patient at increased risk for infection."- Dr. Rachid Baz, malignant hematologist
Powell’s passing due to COVID-19 complications has fueled more conversation about the effectiveness of the vaccinations available to the public, which health officials say will help curb the pandemic.
In patients in a similar situation to Powell’s, according to Baz, the vaccine is less effective because of the cancer and its therapies. These patients develop lower antibody titers to the vaccine, which impacts the effectiveness.
“It’s important to recognize that many patients with myeloma develop positive titers,” Baz said. “And while the COVID vaccine may not protect everyone, especially older adults in an immunocompromised state, it remains one of the most important tools to protect our patients.”
The average patient with multiple myeloma is nearly 70 years old, which is its own risk factor for complications of COVID infections, said Baz, who added that the vaccination of the healthy population who may come into contact with patients with multiple myeloma is of the utmost importance.