Conference Coverage

Epilepsy linked to 1.5-fold higher COVID-19 mortality in hospital



Although their ages were similar, patients with epilepsy were nearly 1.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than other infected patients at a hospital system during the first 14 months of the pandemic, according to a new study presented at the annual meeting of the American Epilepsy Society. While the findings are preliminary and not yet adjusted for various confounders, the authors say they are a warning sign that patients with epilepsy may face higher risks.

“These findings suggest that epilepsy may be a pre-existing condition that places patients at increased risk for death if hospitalized with a COVID-19 infection. It may offer neurologists guidance when counseling patients on critical preventative measures such as masking, social distancing, and most importantly, vaccination,” lead author Claire Ufongene, a student at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, said in an interview.

According to Ms. Ufongene, there’s sparse data about COVID-19 outcomes in patients with epilepsy, although she highlighted a 2021 meta-analysis of 13 studies that found a higher risk of severity (odds ratio, 1.69; 95% confidence interval, 1.11-2.59, P = .010) and mortality (OR, 1.71; 95% CI, 1.14-2.56, P = .010).

For the new study, researchers retrospectively tracked identified 334 patients with epilepsy and COVID-19 and 9,499 other patients with COVID-19 from March 15, 2020, to May 17, 2021. All were treated at hospitals within the New York–based Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

The groups of patients with and without epilepsy were similar in some ways: 45% and 46%, respectively, were female (P = .674), and their ages were similar (average, 62 years and 65 years, respectively; P = .02). Racial makeup was also similar (non-Hispanic groups made up 27.8% of those with epilepsy and 24.5% of those without; the difference was not statistically significant).

“In addition, more of those with epilepsy were English speaking [83.2% vs. 77.9%] and had Medicaid insurance [50.9% vs. 38.9%], while fewer of those with epilepsy had private insurance [16.2% vs. 25.5%] or were Spanish speaking [14.0% vs. 9.3%],” study coauthor Nathalie Jette, MD, MSc, a neurologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said in an interview.

In terms of outcomes, patients with epilepsy were much more likely to need ventilator support (37.7% vs. 14.3%; P < .001), to be admitted to the ICU (39.2% vs. 17.7%; P < .001), and to die in the hospital (29.6% vs. 19.9%; P < .001).

“Most patients we follow in our practices with epilepsy who experienced COVID-19 in general have had symptoms similar to the general population,” Dr. Jette said. “There are rare instances where COVID-19 can result in an exacerbation of seizures in some with pre-existing epilepsy. This is not surprising as infections in particular can decrease the seizure threshold and result in breakthrough seizures in people living with epilepsy.”

Loss of seizure control

How might epilepsy be related to worse outcomes in COVID-19? Andrew Wilner, MD, a neurologist and internist at University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis, who’s familiar with the study findings, said COVID-19 itself may not worsen epilepsy. “Evidence to suggest that COVID-19 directly affects the central nervous system is extremely limited. As such, one would not expect that a COVID-19 infection would cause epilepsy or exacerbate epilepsy,” he said. “However, patients with epilepsy who suffer from infections may be predisposed to decreased seizure control. Consequently, it would not be surprising if patients with epilepsy who also had COVID-19 had loss of seizure control and even status epilepticus, which could adversely affect their hospital course. However, there are no data on this potential phenomenon.”

Dr. Wilner suspected that comorbidities explain the higher mortality in patients with epilepsy. “The findings are probably most useful in that they call attention to the fact that epilepsy patients are more vulnerable to a host of comorbidities and resultant poorer outcomes due to any acute illness.”

As for treatment, Dr. Wilner urged colleagues to make sure that hospitalized patients with epilepsy “continue to receive their antiepileptic medications, which they may no longer be able to take orally. They may need to be switched temporarily to an intravenous formulation.”

In an interview, Selim Benbadis, MD, a neurologist from the University of South Florida, Tampa, suggested that antiseizure medications may play a role in the COVID-19 disease course because they can reduce the efficacy of other medications, although he noted that drug treatments for COVID-19 were limited early on. He recommended that neurologists “avoid old enzyme-inducing seizure medications, as is generally recommended.”

No study funding is reported. The study authors and Dr. Benbadis reported no relevant disclosures. Dr. Wilner is a medical adviser for the epilepsy disease management program for CVS/Health.

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