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Perspective
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Deborah Dormady Letham, PhD

Our Vaccinations: Helping Us to Help Others

Organ transplants and best health practices

If there is one more thing I can say to those considering whether to get a COVID vaccine, it would be to protect my friend Andy and all those folks who are immunocompromised due to organ transplants.

After my second shot, I dropped by a Russian grocery store and then a European-style bakery before heading home. YUM!!! Initially it was impossible to tell the difference between being a bit tired from the vaccination and the REAL SUGAR CRASH after indulging in the goodies. Yes, I joked that I might sign up for a third vaccination just to travel back to that area again, with its delicious eggplant salads, macaroons, and a poppy seed bread of your dreams!!!

Studies on vaccinating transplant recipients

But in all seriousness, I do have a friend, Andy, who is wondering if he may REALLY need another shot, a third vaccination. And he is wondering if it would trigger his system to make the necessary antibody-producing defense or not. Andy is a recipient of not just one or two but THREE organ transplants over the course of two separate surgeries. He counts his blessings at another shot at life (three actually). He is someone who is always encouraging other transplant recipients, all while keeping up on the science, so he sent me a research paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association stating that approximately 50% of organ recipients could not produce an antibody response to two doses of the mRNA-type vaccinations. The data from 658 patients was reported through the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as an update that showed response after one dose was only 19%. Yeah – low.

Two doses of the mRNA-based vaccinations (or one dose of the others) are sufficient for most of us to stage an antibody army, thanks to our healthy immune systems against many pathogens including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But if you are an organ transplant patient and receiving anti-rejection immunosuppressant medication your body would have a reduced ability to mount a defense. That is why these transplant folks, in even non-COVID years, have had to be cautious about normal social interactions.

So as the country moves to a maskless society, our vaccination rates and good hygiene will have an impact on their safety. There is also an interesting set of medical observations that some immunocompromised patients with COVID-19 may encounter more difficulty fighting the virus than the general population due to the nature of the virus growing in an immunocompromised body.

Vulnerability of transplant recipients

Andy, who tried hard to maintain his social bubble all year, did eventually contract COVID-19 from an unknown source, and he was so very thankful to his transplant-minded doctors and nurses who immediately got him into the clinic for a novel recombinant antibody treatment regime within days of his diagnosis. He knows that not everyone is able to be this closely watched. He has returned to work at a pharmacy helping others and he hopes to return to “normal” life again soon now that cases are dropping.

I know you have heard of many reasons to get a vaccination and I hope to encourage you to continue to be the healthiest that you can be. So if you remember that advice when you last flew in an airplane — “Put on your own oxygen mask so that you can help others with theirs” — now is the time to help the most vulnerable in this ongoing pandemic. With our best health practices, our vaccinations will help us to help others.

If you are interested in learning more about research into COVID-19 vaccines among populations with weakened or suppressed immune systems, check out this recent Science Ticker item.