Conference Coverage

Dr. Len Calabrese gives advice on vaccinating adult patients with rheumatic disease



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.


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