ROME – New therapies introduced over the past 15 years have vastly improved the lives of patients with rheumatic diseases but are also creating complex treatment scenarios as more female patients consider starting a family or become pregnant while taking medication. At the European Congress of Rheumatology, experts discussed the importance of contraceptive counseling, pregnancy planning, and how to treat pregnant women with rheumatic diseases.

“Nowadays we have such better treatments for our patients that sexuality and contraception is becoming more and more important,” said Dr. Eliza Chakravarty of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City. Yet contraception is “quite underused in our patients,” she observed.

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Indeed, in one study looking at the risk of unintended pregnancy in women with lupus, over half (55%) of the 212 women surveyed admitted that they had unprotected sex at least once, with almost a quarter (23%) saying that this was usually in the preceding 3 months (Arthritis Care Res. 2008;59:863-6).

This underuse of contraception is not unique to lupus patients, and there are many reasons why women with rheumatic diseases who are sexually active may not always use adequate contraception. One of these reasons was the lack of time during consultations, which tend to focus on disease management rather than issues such as contraceptive counseling. Other reasons may be misconceptions on fertility or a lack of understanding of the teratogenicity of medications or the effect that hormones may have on disease activity. Women also may be reluctant to take additional medicines or feel uncomfortable discussing the topic with their rheumatologists.

“Patients see their rheumatologist more frequently than any other [health care] provider,” Dr. Chakravarty said, adding that continual follow-up appointments over time provide an opportunity to discuss fertility and changing contraception needs. “Contraception is a component of effective disease management for young women,” she said.

There are many contraceptive methods available, each with pros and cons and varying efficacy, so women have multiple options to choose from to suit their personal preferences and lifestyles. Dr. Chakravarty suggested that, of all the available methods, long-acting reversible contraceptive methods, such as the subdermal implant or intrauterine device, were perhaps the best choice for many women with rheumatic diseases since they are associated with a low rate of accidental pregnancy and after insertion there is little or nothing to do or remember until the devices needed replacing after 3-10 years.

Dr. Monika Østensen of the Norwegian National Advisory Unit on Pregnancy and Rheumatic Diseases at St. Olavs Hospital-Trondheim University Hospital, echoed the need for repeated family-planning advice. Of course, pregnancies occur even with the best planning, she said, and the question then is how to manage the rheumatic disease.

The need for treatment will depending on the type of disease, she said, noting that the need generally decreased during pregnancy in women with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) but increased in those with ankylosing spondylitis, most notably in the first and second trimesters (Ann. Rheum. Dis. 2004;63:1212-7). The ideal situation would be to adjust disease-directed therapy if needed before conception, although methotrexate is the only drug with proven teratogenicity that is used for RA and ankylosing spondylitis and that should definitely be stopped, she said.

There is a lot of evidence that methotrexate needs to be stopped before pregnancy. One recent prospective study (Arthritis Rheumatol. 2014;66:1101-10) looked at pregnancy outcomes and methotrexate use and found a high rate of spontaneous abortions if it was used within 10 weeks of conception (14.4%) or in the first trimester (42.5%). The rate of major birth defects was 6.6% if methotrexate was used in early pregnancy, versus 2.9% for women without rheumatic disease or 3.5% in women with rheumatic disease who were not taking the disease-modifying antirheumatic drug (DMARD).

Dr. Østensen advised that, when stopping methotrexate, women should be counseled to wait for one menstrual cycle before attempting to conceive and not to stop therapy without perhaps checking for fertility or switching to another pregnancy-compatible drug. She also stressed that patients who want to become pregnant or who do become pregnant should not immediately stop taking their medication without consulting a rheumatologist. Such an action could result in disease flares, and the aim of therapy should always be to keep the patient in remission or low disease activity and continue drugs that support remission while trying to minimize any likely effects on the fetus.

Leflunomide (Arava), rituximab (Rituxan), abatacept (Orencia), and newer biologics such as tocilizumab (Actemra), ustekinumab (Stelara), and tofacitinb (Xeljanz) are contraindicated because of lack of data on whether they are safe for the fetus. If a woman did become pregnant while taking any of these drugs or even methotrexate, then taking a careful history and performing fetal ultrasound and amniocentesis may be the best approach to determine what action to take and if pregnancy termination should be considered.

Tumor necrosis factor-alpha inhibitors (TNFi), the best-studied biologic DMARDs, can be given before conception and during the first and early second trimester; however, use in late pregnancy requires different considerations because transplacental passage varies based on differences related to their structure. Some TNFis, such as certolizumab pegol (Cimzia), have small affinity to the fetal Fc receptor or no Fc part and show low transplacental passage to the fetus. TNFis that possess an Fc part of immunoglobulin G1, however, allow high amounts of transfer and should be avoided in the third trimester whenever possible, Dr. Østensen said.

Data are sparse on human pregnancy exposure and fetal side effects and outcomes for most other biologics, so decisions to use biologics targeting B-cells, T-cell activation, or cytokines like interleukin (IL)-6, IL-23, IL-17, or IL-1beta must be based on the severity of maternal disease and reserved for cases in which no other safe options are available, Dr. Østensen cautioned.

So how can acute arthritis be treated during pregnancy? Options in RA include NSAIDs, short-term oral prednisone with rapid tapering or intramuscular injection of triamcinolone. Intra-articular steroid injection also might be considered, and TNFi in patients with severe polyarthritis. Spondyloarthritis might be treated with NSAIDs, intramuscular triamcinolone, or intra-articular steroid injection, with TNFi in severe cases.

Newer approaches to managing arthritis during pregnancy are to perhaps prescribe a TNFi with a low propensity for transplacental passage or to use a flexible regimen of TNFi by reducing the dose or prolonging the interval between administrations.

Continuing medications such as hydroxychloroquine, sulfasalazine, or azathioprine might be in some patients’ best interests to support remission and keep disease activity low, Dr. Østensen suggested. She noted that prednisone should be used at a low (5-7.5 mg) dose during pregnancy and that the aim should be to try to slowly reduce the use of pregnancy-compatible medications that are not necessary for continued remission, keeping a close eye on patients’ disease activity to ensure that no flares occur.

Dr. Chakravarty had no financial disclosures. Dr. Østensen reported receiving speaker fees and honoraria from UCB, Roche, AbbVie, MSD, Pfizer, and New Bridge.