Conference Coverage

ACR readies first-ever guidelines on managing reproductive health in rheumatology



– Help is on the way for rheumatologists who may feel out of their depth regarding reproductive health issues in their patients.

Dr. Lisa R. Sammaritano of the Hospital for Special Surgery and Cornell University. New York Bruce Jancin/MDedge News

Dr. Lisa R. Sammaritano

The American College of Rheumatology’s first-ever guidelines for management of reproductive health in patients with rheumatic diseases are now circulating for internal review in draft form. Lisa R. Sammaritano, MD, a leader of the expert panel that developed the evidence-based recommendations, shared highlights of the forthcoming guidelines at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology.

“Our patients, fortunately, are pursuing pregnancy more often now than in years past. One of the key messages of the guidelines is that patients really do want to discuss these topics with their rheumatologist, even though that often does not happen now. What patients told us [in the guideline-development process] is their rheumatologist knows them better than their gynecologist or any of their other doctors because we have followed them for a long period of time and we understand their disease and their symptoms. They really want our input on questions about contraception, when to plan a pregnancy, and medication use,” said Dr. Sammaritano of the Hospital for Special Surgery and Cornell University in New York.

The guidelines were created over the course of a year and a half with extensive input from ob.gyns., as well as a patient panel. The project included a systematic review of more than 300 published studies in which guideline panelists attempt to find answers to an initial list of 370 questions. Dr. Sammaritano predicted that the guidelines will prove to be useful not only for rheumatologists, but for their colleagues in ob.gyn. as well. Just as rheumatologists likely haven’t kept up with the sea changes that have occurred in ob.gyn. since their medical school days, most ob.gyns. know little about rheumatic diseases.

“There’s room for education on both sides,” she observed in an interview. “I have had to write letters to gynecologists to get them to put my patients with antiphospholipid antibodies on a contraceptive that includes a progestin because the labeling says, ‘May increase risk of thrombosis.’ And yet if you look at the literature, most of the progestins do not increase the risk of thrombosis, even in patients who are already at increased risk because of a genetic prothrombotic abnormality. I practically had to sign my life away to get a gynecologist to put a progestin-containing IUD in my patient, whereas the risk of thrombosis to my patient with an unplanned pregnancy would have been 10-fold or 100-fold higher. Unplanned pregnancy is dangerous for patients with our diseases.”

And yet, she noted, half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. Among women with rheumatic diseases, the proportion may well be even higher in light of their documented low rate of utilization of effective contraception.

A publication date for the guidelines won’t be set until the review is completed, but the plan is to issue three separate documents. One will address reproductive health outside of pregnancy, with key topics to include contraception, fertility preservation, menopause, and hormone replacement therapy. The second document will focus on pregnancy management, with special attention devoted to women with lupus or antiphospholipid antibodies because they are at particularly high risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes. The third document will be devoted to medications, covering issues including which medications can be continued during pregnancy and when to safely stop the ones that can’t. This section will address both maternal and paternal use of rheumatologic medications, the latter being a topic below the radar of ob.gyns.

The three medications whose paternal use in pregnancy generate the most questions in clinical practice are methotrexate, cyclophosphamide, and sulfasalazine.

“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been asked whether male patients with rheumatic diseases need to stop their methotrexate before they plan to father a child – that’s been a big one. The answer is they don’t need to stop, but that’s a conditional recommendation because the product label still says to stop it 3 months before. But that’s based on theoretical concerns, and all the data support a lack of teratogenicity for men using methotrexate prior to and during pregnancy,” Dr. Sammaritano said.

Men on cyclophosphamide absolutely have to stop the drug 3 months before pregnancy because the drug causes DNA fragmentation in the sperm. Sulfasalazine is known to impair male fertility. The ACR guidelines will recommend that men continue the drug, but if pregnancy doesn’t occur within a reasonable time, then it’s appropriate to get a semen analysis rather than stopping sulfasalazine unnecessarily.

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines now recommend long-acting reversible contraception, including IUDs and progestin implants, as first-line contraception for all women. The ACR draft guidelines strongly recommend the same.

“That is new. The use of this form of contraception in women with rheumatic diseases is quite low. In general, our patients don’t use contraception as often as other women, and when they do, they don’t use effective contraception. There are many theories as to why that may be: perhaps it’s a focus on the more immediate issues of their rheumatic disease that doesn’t allow their rheumatologist to get to the point of discussing contraception,” according to Dr. Sammaritano.

Many rheumatologists will be pleasantly surprised to learn that the problem of increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease associated with earlier-generation IUDs is no longer an issue with the current devices. And contrary to a misconception among some ob.gyns., autoimmune disease will not cause a woman to reject her IUD.

The ACR guidelines recommend continuing hydroxychloroquine in lupus patients during pregnancy – and considering starting the drug in those not already on it – because of strong evidence supporting both safety and benefit for mother and baby.

“We are recommending the use of low-dose aspirin for patients with lupus and antiphospholipid antibodies because those two conditions increase the risk for preeclampsia, and the ob.gyns. routinely use low-dose aspirin starting toward the end of the first trimester as preventive therapy. Large studies show that it reduces the risk,” she continued.

Dr. Sammaritano cautioned that the literature on the use of rheumatologic medications in pregnancy and breast feeding is generally weak – and in the case of the new oral small molecule JAK inhibitors, essentially nonexistent.

“A lot of our recommendations are conditional because we did not feel that the data support a strong recommendation. But you have to do something. As long as you communicate the idea that we’re doing the best we can with what information is available, I think patients will respond to that,” the rheumatologist said.

She reported having no financial conflicts regarding her presentation.

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