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Multiple myeloma: Colin Powell treated for blood cancer prior to his death

Despite getting vaccinated against COVID-19, Colin Powell remained vulnerable to the virus because of his advanced age and history of cancer.

WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had been treated over the past few years for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer which impacts the immune system, a longtime aide confirmed to the Associated Press. 

Powell's family announced on social media that the former Joint Chiefs chairman died Monday morning "due to complications from Covid 19." His family noted that the 84-year-old had been fully vaccinated. 

While the family's statement did not mention whether Powell had any underlying illnesses, Peggy Cifrino, Powell’s longtime aide, said he had been treated over the past few years for multiple myeloma. 

Multiple myeloma impairs the body’s ability to fight infection, and studies have shown that those cancer patients don’t get as much protection from the COVID-19 vaccines as healthier people. 

The COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective against hospitalization and death, and the unvaccinated are about 11 times more likely to die from the coronavirus. But they are not perfect, and experts stress that widespread vaccination is critical to give an added layer of protection to the most vulnerable.

What is multiple myeloma? 

According to the Mayo Clinic, "cancerous plasma cells accumulate in the bone marrow and crowd out healthy blood cells."

"Rather than produce helpful antibodies, the cancer cells produce abnormal proteins that can cause complications," the Mayo Clinic explains on its website. 

The Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation notes that this particular form of cancer is twice as common in the Black community compared to other groups and is twice as deadly in Black patients compared to white patients. 

When a person has cancer they are at a higher risk for having severe illness from COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And several studies have found as few as 45% of people with multiple myeloma may develop protective levels of coronavirus-fighting antibodies after getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Age also is a risk, especially months after someone is first vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked dips in protection, especially among older Americans who were among the first people vaccinated last winter. The reduced protection is the result of either waning immunity or the extra-contagious delta variant.  

Credit: AP
FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2006 file photo, former Secretary of State Colin Powell looks on during a ceremony for the Alexis de Tocqueville prize, a French literary award, in Tocqueville, east of Cherbourg, western France.

Powell was the first African American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state. But his reputation was forever stained when, in 2003, Powell went before the U.N. Security Council and made the case for U.S. war against Iraq. He cited faulty information claiming Saddam Hussein had secretly stashed away weapons of mass destruction. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.