When it comes to preventing infection in rheumatology patients, “vaccination is the best mode of infection protection” and works synergistically with masks and hand washing, according to Leonard H. Calabrese, DO.

“Patients with rheumatic diseases have increased morbidity and mortality [from infection] and a lot of risk factors, including age, comorbidities, cytopenias, and extra-articular disease immunosuppression,” he said in a virtual presentation at the annual Perspectives in Rheumatic Diseases held by Global Academy for Medical Education.

Unfortunately, vaccination uptake remains “much lower than we would like in this country,” he said. Notably, influenza vaccination remains well below the World Health Organization target of 75%, he said.

Influenza vaccination

Flu vaccination will be even more important this year in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dr. Calabrese, professor of medicine and the RJ Fasenmyer Chair of Clinical Immunology at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “For everyone who comes in with a respiratory illness, we will have to figure out whether it is flu or COVID,” he emphasized.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations include a detailed special considerations section for patients with immunocompromising conditions; “the notes have everything you need to know” about advising rheumatology patients, most of whom can safely receive a flu vaccine, he said.

One concern that always comes up is whether an antibody response will be suppressed based on therapy, Dr. Calabrese noted. Two major drugs with the greatest ability to reduce response are methotrexate and rituximab, he said. His tip: “Withhold methotrexate for two doses following seasonal flu vaccination.” This advice stems from a series of “practice-changing” studies by Park et al. published in 2017, 2018, and 2019 that showed benefit in withholding methotrexate for two doses following vaccination.

In the past, high-dose trivalent flu vaccines have been more expensive, and not necessarily practice changing, with studies showing varying clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness, Dr. Calabrese said. This year, a high-dose quadrivalent vaccine should be available that showed a 24% improvement in protection from all strains of influenza, compared with the standard vaccine in a head-to-head, randomized, controlled trial, he noted.

“All patients in rheumatology practices should get a flu vaccine,” with a 2-week hold on methotrexate following vaccination, he advised, and those aged 65 years and older should receive the high-dose quadrivalent. Younger patients on immunosuppressive therapy also might be considered for the high-dose vaccine, he said.

Pneumococcal vaccination

Dr. Calabrese also emphasized the value of pneumococcal vaccines for rheumatology patients. “The mortality for invasive disease ranges from 5% to 32%, but patients with immunocompromising conditions are at increased risk.”

Dr. Calabrese added a note on safety: Patients with cryopyrin-associated periodic syndrome (CAPS), a rare hereditary inflammatory disorder with cutaneous, neurologic, ophthalmologic, and rheumatologic manifestations, may have severe local and systemic reactions to the 23-valent polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23), he said.

However, immunization against pneumococcal disease is safe and effective for most patients with autoimmune and inflammatory disorders regardless of their current therapy, he said. As with influenza, the CDC’s vaccination recommendations provide details for special situations, including immunocompromised individuals, he noted.

Dr. Calabrese recommended the 13-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) as soon as possible for rheumatology patients who have never been vaccinated, with follow-up doses of the 23-valent polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23) at least 8 weeks later, and a PPSV23 booster 5 years after the first PPSV23 dose.

Protecting against shingles

When it comes to managing the varicella zoster virus (VZV) in immunocompromised patients, “prevention is preferable to treatment, as our patients are particularly vulnerable because of age and declining immunity,” Dr. Calabrese said.

Prevention is important because “once herpes zoster develops, the available treatments, including antiviral therapy, do not prevent postherpetic neuralgia in all patients,” he emphasized. “The treatments are complicated and not always effective,” he added.

The complications of zoster are well known, but recent data show an increased risk of cardiovascular disease as well, Dr. Calabrese said. “All the more reason to protect rheumatology patients from incident zoster,” he said.

Currently, the nonlive recombinant subunit zoster vaccine (Shingrix) is the preferred option for VZV vaccination according to the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, Dr. Calabrese said. The CDC initially recommended its use to prevent herpes zoster and related complications in all immunocompetent adults aged 50 years and older; in an update, a C-level recommendation extends to “all patients aged 50 with or without immunosuppressive illnesses regardless of previous Zostavax exposure,” Dr. Calabrese said. “All patients on or starting [Janus] kinase inhibitors, regardless of age, should be considered” to receive the herpes zoster vaccine, he noted.

In general, promoting vaccination for rheumatology patients and for all patients is a multipronged effort that might include reminders, rewards, education, and standing orders, Dr. Calabrese said. Clinicians must continue to educate patients not only by strongly recommending the appropriate vaccines, but dispelling myths about vaccination, addressing fears, and providing current and accurate information, he said.

Dr. Calabrese disclosed relationships with AbbVie, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Crescendo, Genentech, Gilead, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen, Novartis, Pfizer, Sanofi-Regeneron, and UCB.

Global Academy for Medical Education and this news organization are owned by the same parent company.