From The Straits Times    |
Immunocompromised in a post-pandemic world: How to keep our loved ones protected

Credit: Getty Images

While many of us have started to embrace life post-Covid – be it revenge travelling, heading out to social gatherings or flocking to concerts – some people aren’t taking any chances. 

These may include our own loved ones who are at higher risk of contracting Covid-19 or unable to be vaccinated against the disease. Take for example 72-year-old Mr Jimmy Ong, a doting grandfather who has been living with Type 1 diabetes for 43 years. 

His health condition requires him to tread more cautiously, being part of the immunocompromised population who need to take extra measures against Covid-19.

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72-year-old retiree, Mr Jimmy Ong, has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 43 years and remains cautious even as the pandemic blows over. Credit: AstraZeneca

Throughout the pandemic, Mr Ong recalls having to significantly change his health management and daily living, which took a toll on his well-being. 

“I had to be extra careful about how I live my life, including avoiding crowded places, continuously wearing a mask, and limiting how often I see my friends and family to protect myself,” he shares. 

Understanding the risks for the immunocompromised

Dr Leong Hoe Nam, infectious disease specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, says that while vaccination is the body’s primary defence, as many as 50 per cent or more of immunocompromised individuals may not be able to mount an immune response.

This includes those who have underlying health conditions or are taking immunosuppressive drugs for medical conditions such as blood cancers, and those undergoing active chemotherapy, dialysis or an organ transplant. These conditions can lower immunity and reduce the ability of white cells to fight the infection.

Singapore has over 53,000 immunocompromised patients, of which about 25,000 are on active chemotherapy, says Dr Leong. For these individuals, their risk of hospitalisation and developing severe complications such as pneumonia or organ failure is eight to 10 times higher than that of a healthy individual, he adds.

However, Dr Leong says that some immunocompromised patients may be medically unsuitable for the Covid-19 vaccination or may not mount the same level of protective response from the vaccines.

He explains: “Vaccines, which usually contain a weakened form of the organism, are given to train your body to fight against the virus or bacteria. In immunocompromised people, as their bodies may not be able to manufacture these antibodies, they are still at high risk of hospitalisation and severe complications if they were to contract Covid-19.”

Besides vaccines, what options are available for vulnerable individuals to protect themselves?

74-year-old Mr Ting Chew Thai underwent a bone marrow transplant in early 2022, which had compromised his vaccine protection. Credit: AstraZeneca

For Mr Ting Chew Thai, who was diagnosed with leukaemia and had to undergo a bone marrow transplant (BMT) in early 2022, his doctor prescribed a new therapy that would offer him protection for three to six months. 

“As a BMT recipient, I knew that my immune system would weaken further and I would be at increased risk of infections, including Covid-19,” says the 74-year-old retiree, who lives with his daughter and caregiver Jing.

Although Mr Ting had completed his Covid-19 vaccination prior to the procedure, his doctor believed that the transplant may have compromised his vaccine protection. He was also advised against getting vaccinated immediately after the surgery as his immunity was below the required level to take the vaccine again. 

Caregivers or patients can speak to their doctor during their patient visit on any new measures for further protection against the virus, says Dr Leong.

He adds: “As we progress towards an endemic Covid-19 for the general population, we must be mindful that the virus is still living among us and still poses a threat to immunocompromised patients. Therefore, we need to remain vigilant and take preventive measures to continue to protect the vulnerable group.”

For Mr Ting, receiving additional protection helped to alleviate his worry of getting Covid-19. He says: “I was very relieved and slowly felt less afraid to go out.”

Disclaimer: This material is provided as a grant from AstraZeneca to aid in patient/public understanding/education of disease and not meant to replace advice of a qualified healthcare professional. Please consult with, and rely only on the advice of, your physician or healthcare professional for any specific queries. 

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