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Health Information Patient communities

COVID Vaccine and Our Patient Communities

Across the country we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel as the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has begun. For many of our patients with primary immunodeficiency diseases or autoimmune conditions, however, getting vaccinated is not a straightforward decision. They have lots of questions and must weigh carefully a number of considerations.

Immunologist and rheumatologist Dr. Terry Harville has some concerns, too. “There are questions in my mind that haven’t been fully answered,” he says about the new vaccines that have recently been granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “And I’m worried that there will be unintended consequences.”

The fact that we have only two months’ worth of safety data from the clinical trials testing these new vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna leaves many medical professionals worried about longer-term effects. Others are unsure about how the vaccines will react in patients with rare autoimmune and primary immunodeficiency diseases, because testing did not include people who live with these conditions.

Despite these concerns, Dr. Harville—along with most other healthcare practitioners—stresses that most people should still get the vaccine. Because when hundreds of thousands of people get COVID and one or two percent of them die, the statistics overwhelmingly support COVID-19 vaccination.

Dr. Harville, who is a professor of medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and an expert in primary immunodeficiency disorders, offers some guidelines for those who are trying to make a decision about the vaccine and might be at greater risk for complications from it.

If you have a primary immunodeficiency (PI) disease, you probably already know that you need to be careful about taking immunizations, especially if they are made with live virus. The COVID-19 vaccines that are currently being administered, however, are not made with live virus. They are created from a man-made part of the virus’s genetic code called mRNA. This means they are safer for those who are unable to take live virus vaccines.

With a few exceptions, Dr. Harville says, “It is the general consensus that we don’t see any reason to not vaccinate those with primary immune deficiency diseases.”

One exception is interferonopathies, IDs associated with dysfunction in components of the immune system called interferons. Another exception is CTLA4 deficiency. These are conditions in which patients tend to develop autoimmune disorders. Dr. Harville recommends that individuals with these types of ID should probably not get the currently available COVID vaccines. While there is no data to support this at this time, there is concern among immunologists that vaccination in this group of patients may trigger an overly aggressive immune response that would be harmful. As more data becomes available, better recommendations will be forthcoming.

If you use immune globulin therapy, there appears to be no reason you shouldn’t get the vaccine. In fact, even if you get the disease, you may actually be better off than others.

“What’s interesting is,” Dr. Harville says, “if you look at SARS-CoV-2 infection in patients with antibody deficiencies—whether that’s X-linked agammaglobulinemia (XLA) or common variable immunodeficiency (CVID)—when these patients are receiving appropriate immunoglobulin (IG) replacement therapy, they tend to have milder disease.”

Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) has even been used, in some cases, to treat COVID-19 infection. While clinical trials to prove effectiveness are still ongoing, some physicians believe IVIG does decrease the risk of severe complications. IG manufactured from the plasma of people who have recovered from COVID-19 infection is also being tested as a treatment.

If you have had a severe reaction to immunizations in the past, this may be a reason to opt out of getting the COVID vaccine. This includes those who have a primary immunodeficiency disorder and developed the infection after receiving a vaccine. It also includes autoimmune disease patients who have experienced a severe flare of their symptoms after a vaccination.

In the 1976, there was a rise in cases of the autoimmune condition known as Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) that was thought to be triggered by the swine flu vaccine given that year. This was an inactivated virus vaccine, not the type of mRNA vaccine we now have with COVID. Nevertheless, if you’ve had GBS in the past, be sure to let your healthcare provider know this, as it may be a consideration for whether or not you should get the COVID vaccine.

During the COVID vaccine clinical trials, a very small number of participants who received the Pfizer vaccine developed a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction. Since then, others have also had what is called an anaphylactic response soon after getting vaccinated. If you have ever experienced shortness of breath, tightening in the throat, swollen lips or face, or other severe allergic symptoms, you should probably not get this vaccine in particular. (Other vaccines using whole virus are currently in development and will likely be safer.) Anyone who does get a COVID vaccine should be observed for at least 15 minutes and be sure the healthcare personnel administering it have emergency equipment needed to respond to anaphylaxis.

Regardless of your disease, everyone can reduce their own risk. Dr. Harville stresses that, even if you get vaccinated, it’s still important to wear a mask, wash your hands, and maintain physical distance from others.

“Ultimately whether you take or do not take the vaccine is an individual patient decision,” Dr. Harville says. “This should be made after weighing all the risks and benefits and based on a discussion with your physician.”

We highly recommend that you learn more about the risks and benefits of COVID-19 vaccination as it relates to your particular situation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers these guidelines for COVID-19 vaccination for those with underlying medical conditions. In addition, a number of disease organizations offer educational programming about the impact of the virus and the vaccine on specific disease conditions.

Please also see disease-specific statements about COVID-19 vaccines from these patient organizations:

Guillain-Barré syndrome – GBS|CIDP Foundation

Immune Deficiency Foundation

Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America

The Myositis Association

Myositis Support and Understanding

Platelet Disorder Support Association

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Health Information

Get Your Flu Shot Now

For some, getting a flu shot is just part of the fall routine every year. Immunization against the virus that causes influenza prevents millions of people from getting the disease, makes the disease less severe if you do get it, and can prevent death from severe disease and its complications. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), influenza causes an estimated 12,000 to 61,000 deaths every year in this country.

This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, physicians and public health officials say it’s even more important that everyone over the age of six months get a flu shot. This is especially important if you have an underlying health condition that makes you more at risk for developing complications if you get the flu. While the influenza vaccine will not prevent you from getting COVID-19 (researchers are still working on a vaccine for this different virus), it will help you avoid getting seriously sick with or—heaven forbid—dying from the flu. And the fewer people who get the flu, the more it saves healthcare resources that are still urgently needed for treating COVID-19 patients.

Those who are at high risk for flu complications are also at greater risk for getting COVID-19 and having serious outcomes. If you have an autoimmune condition or immune deficiency disease, such as myositis, myasthenia gravis, pemphigus and pemphigoid, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), and primary immunodeficiency (PI), this means you. You are at a much greater risk for getting sick with the flu and at greater risk for developing complications like pneumonia if you do. If you have heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, getting the flu can also make these conditions worse.

Getting the flu vaccine, however, is not a straightforward decision for some who have these conditions. For example, some people with a history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) may have developed this form of muscle paralysis after receiving an influenza immunization. According to the GBS|CIDP Foundation International, the association between GBS and flu vaccines is inconclusive, but they suggest these individuals avoid the vaccine in the future. If you have had GBS, especially if it developed four to six weeks after getting a flu shot, you should talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of getting the vaccine again.

Another consideration is the aerosol form of the flu vaccine. This is a live attenuated (weakened) influenza vaccine that is given through the nose. While the injected vaccines are made with inactivated virus, the nasal spray is made with live organisms that have been weakened but are still able to activate the body’s immune response against the disease.

The intranasal vaccine is not recommended for those younger than two, older than 50, or those who have a weakened immune system, including some patients who take immune suppressing medications. If you care for or live with someone who is immune compromised, you should also avoid the nasal spray. And if you have an underlying medical condition that puts you at risk for developing severe complications from the flu (such as chronic lung disease, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disorders, neurologic and neuromuscular disorders, blood disorders, and diabetes), it’s important to check with your physician before taking the nasal flu vaccine.

According to the Immune Deficiency Foundation, those with certain forms of immune deficiency (common variable immune deficiency [CVID], severe combined immune deficiency [SCID] or Bruton’s agammaglobulinemia) are unable to develop protective immunity following vaccination. This means their bodies don’t have the infrastructure to develop the immunity needed to keep them from getting sick, so vaccines will not do them any good. In fact, for individuals with these forms of PI, live vaccines—including the influenza nasal spray—may put them in danger of developing severe disease.

The only reason not to get a flu shot is if you have a severe, life-threatening allergy to the vaccine or any of its ingredients. This might include gelatin, certain antibiotics, or other ingredients. If you get hives when you eat eggs, studies have shown that most times you can still get the flu shot. If you have a more serious reaction to eggs or you are worried about this, you should of course talk with your doctor. Egg-free alternative vaccines are available.

The CDC has more information about seasonal influenza and how to prevent it.

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Advocacy Patient stories

Profile of a Plasma Donor Hero

Two-and-a-half years ago when she joined a book club through the Wounded Warriors Project (WWP), a nonprofit organization that provides programs and services for wounded veterans, Torey Reese wasn’t thinking about how much she enjoyed reading or needed some motivation to finish a book. She just wanted to find friends.

Like others in this caregiver’s group, Torey had a husband at home who had been injured during active duty as a Marine. She and her family had relocated to San Antonio, Texas a year and a half earlier. Her second child was born shortly after the move with some health problems that required several surgeries. Because of her family’s healthcare needs at the time, she wasn’t working, and she was feeling pretty isolated. The book club was a way for her to get together with others who shared some of the challenges she was dealing with.

“Pretty much immediately I thought I wanted to be friends with Amanda,” Torey says. “We loved similar types of books, and that just kind of sparked the friendship.”

Amanda Martin was there at the book club because she too cares for a former military husband with serious health issues. Since meeting three years ago, the two have found lots of other things they have in common, including children that are around the same age. And except for their current social distancing because of COVID-19, they and their kids have been inseparable.

But Amanda and her 9-year-old daughter Rita live with primary immunodeficiency disorders, which make them vulnerable to recurrent infections. Amanda depends on intravenous immune globulin (IVIG) infusions twice a month to stay healthy. Rita too receives subcutaneous IG weekly.

“Immune globulin helps control our infections,” Amanda says. “Our lives are so much better because of it. It enables my daughter to go to school. It enables me to be out in the community and to advocate for my husband. I wouldn’t be able to function as well as I do without it.”

When Torey found out about Amanda’s and Rita’s disorder and the life-saving therapy they depend on, she had to help. Immune globulin is not a drug that can be mixed up in a laboratory. It is made from donated human plasma, the golden-colored liquid that remains after the red blood cells are removed. It takes 130 plasma donations to treat one immunodeficiency patient for one year. When donations decrease, so do immune globulin supplies. If there is a shortage, as we had last summer, Amanda and Rita risk having to go a longer period of time between their infusions. They may even have to go without.

So once a week or so, Torey goes to one of more than 800 certified plasma donation centers in the country to give a bit of her plasma. She wishes she could donate twice a week, which is the maximum donors are allowed. But in addition to caring for her husband and two boys, Cayden 10 and Caspian 3, Torey now works as an accountant for a small nonprofit organization. Once a week is all she can manage right now. Still, this is a long-term commitment for Torey, who has been donating for nearly a year now.

“It’s something I can directly do to help them stay alive and stay healthy,” says Torey, who has donated plasma in the past. “I never knew anybody before who directly benefited from my donations. So when you have a person you care about, who is a real face and a real name and a real story to you, it’s hard to not want to help them. I mean, it’s a minor inconvenience to me, but it’s a major inconvenience to them.”

“I can’t express my gratitude enough for her doing this,” Amanda says with a catch in her throat. “It’s something my daughter and I talk about when we get our infusions. We’re very, very grateful and just lucky that Torey is healthy and willing to do it. This may not seem like a heroic thing to do, but for the people who benefit from it, it absolutely is.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a significant reduction in plasma donations in recent months. CSI Pharmacy, in partnership with the Immune Globulin National Society (IGNS) and their #ItsMyTurn campaign, urge those who are eligible to commit to donating plasma to help avoid a shortage of immune globulin and other life-saving plasma-derived products in the months to come. Reminder: It is important to seek out a certified plasma donation center to be sure your donation is used for IG products. (Donations made at blood banks and the Red Cross are not used to create IG products.)

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Patient communities

Honoring Our Rare

As the shortest month of the year, February is always the rarest month. Because of this, the last day of February has been chosen as Rare Disease Day. This year, however, is rarer still, because it’s leap year, the time when an extra day is added to the calendar: February 29. Which makes it an even better time to honor our rare disease patients!

Rare Disease Day is a time when advocates take to the soapbox to raise awareness for the more than 6,000 rare diseases that have been identified worldwide. More than 300 million people are affected by these diseases at some point in their lives, which adds up to about the population of the United States!

CSI Pharmacy works with a number of rare disease organizations to bring awareness and education. Among these is Myositis Support and Understanding. Founder Jerry Williams was diagnosed with polymyositis in 2003. He is a tireless (despite the fatigue of his illness) advocate for those living with myositis diseases.

Like many who live with a rare disease, Jerry’s myositis journey has been long and challenging. It started with muscle pain, severe weakness, muscle wasting, and fatigue. Initially, when they couldn’t figure out what was going on, doctors told him these symptoms were all in his head. Even after being identified as myositis, his disease has resisted treatment and been riddled with complications. He’s spent long stretches of time in the hospital over the last 17 years with flares, infections, and other complications. Myositis has even forced him to end his career in the banking industry and go on long-term disability.

“Leaving the workforce was a blow,” Jerry says. “I thought, what am I going to do? I knew I needed a purpose.”

Jerry set to work learning about this autoimmune disease of the muscles. In addition to reading everything he could, he looked around for others who had myositis. He knew their first-hand experiences would be at least as helpful as the information from medical sources.

Through this process, Jerry recognized there was a need for more patient-focused services and programs for those who live with myositis diseases. In 2010, he started a Facebook support group called “Polymyowhat: Understanding Myositis.” As the group attracted members with the several other forms of myositis in addition to polymyositis, he changed the name and eventually formed the nonprofit Myositis Support and Understanding (MSU). The all-volunteer organization is run completely by those who are directly affected by myositis, including patients and care partners. Jerry serves as President and Executive Director.

On this the rarest day of the year, Jerry’s message to others who live with rare diseases is never give up.

“Don’t accept the status quo,” he says. “When you’re diagnosed with a disease like myositis that limits your life, you have to find new ways to live your passion.”

Jerry has found his passion in helping to empower others who live with myositis to advocate for their best life. MSU now has two websites, several Facebook support groups, and live online video support sessions. MSU operates the official Myositis Support Community on the Inspire health support platform. They also provide educational programs, a smartphone app for tracking symptoms and treatments, clinical trials opportunities, and a financial assistance program.

“Living with chronic illness has also offered me some wonderful opportunities,” Jerry says. “It’s amazing the relationships I have built. And I never would have imagined working with a nonprofit as part of what I do and who I am. Now I can’t imagine not doing it.”

CSI Pharmacy is pleased to support the efforts of MSU and other patient organizations that are helping rare disease patients stay engaged with the world. We provide therapies uniquely suited to rare diseases, offering these therapies to more than a dozen patient communities. This month we are thrilled to honor those who daily cope with the challenges of the following rare diseases:

  • Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP)
  • Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS)
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Immune thrombocytopenia (ITP)
  • Multifocal motor neuropathy (MMN)
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Myasthenia gravis (MG)
  • Myositis
  • Pemphigus and pemphigoid
  • Primary immune deficiency diseases (PIDD)
  • Stiff-person syndrome (SPS)