The ACR states in its recently released “2008 Recommendations for the Use of Nonbiologic and Biologic Disease-Modifying Antirheumatic Drugs in Rheumatoid Arthritis” that all RA patients should be given the influenza vaccine, whether or not they are on biologic or nonbiologic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDS).2 Pneumococcus vaccine is also recommended by the ACR for patients with RA starting leflunomide, methotrexate, or sulfsalazine. The hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for some patients with RA, including those on leflunomide, methotrexate, and biologic agents, and those who fall into risk factor categories (e.g., healthcare personnel or those with intravenous drug use or multiple sexual partners).
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Explore This IssueAugust 2009
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Quick Vaccination Guidelines for Rheumatologists
- Give influenza and pneumococcus vaccines routinely.
- Aim for stability of disease in patients, working to avoid periods of intense immunosuppression and very active disease.
- Avoid live viral vaccines in immunosuppressed patients (except for the zoster vaccine with low-dose immunosuppression).
- Remember that patients may not be sufficiently immunized if vaccinations are given close to periods of immunosuppression due to drug therapies.
- Be aware that vaccination is not the same as immunization: “You may be decreasing their risk [of developing full-blown infection] but you may not fully immunize them or be able to prevent disease,” Dr. Kotton noted.
ACR recommendations clearly state that all live vaccinations should be avoided in those who are receiving biologic DMARDs. Zoster vaccine; varicella; and measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines are generally contraindicated in immunosuppressed hosts, said Dr. Kotton. Another precaution: “Family members and others living intimately with immunosuppressed hosts should not be given the live influenza nasal vaccine,” she said, because the live attenuated virus can replicate in the nose for a week or longer and could be easily transmitted and potentially cause disease in the immunosuppressed patient who has secondary exposure to the vaccine given to the family member. Although the oral polio vaccine is no longer given in the United States, patients traveling to countries where the live attenuated vaccine is still used should be counseled on risks.
Special Issues with Zoster
Prevention of herpes zoster is a special concern due to the elevated rates of the infection in patients with rheumatic disease (13 to 14 cases per 1,000 person-years compared with 1.5 to 4 cases per 1,000 in the normal population). As shown by the three-year-long Shingles Prevention Study Group led by Oxman and Levin, giving the zoster vaccine (Zostavax) to adults aged 60 years or older who were not immunosurpressed lowered the incidence of zoster by 51%; the risk for post-herpetic neuralgia was 67% lower.3 Dr. Kotton presented the following key points extracted from a June 2008 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report study on the prevention of herpes zoster that applied the vaccine to those on immunosuppressant therapy.4 As shown in some of the points below, timing issues are critical.
- Defer the zoster vaccine for at least one month after discontinuation of immunosuppressant therapy (high-dose corticosteroids, >20 mg/day of prednisone or the equivalent for two or more weeks);
- Do not give the zoster vaccine to those receiving immune modulators, such as tumor necrosis factor–a blockers, and defer the vaccine for a least a month after discontinuation of such therapy;
- Consider the zoster vaccine for those on short-term corticosteroids (fewer than 20 mg/day of prednisone or equivalent for less than 14 days), those given topical steroids, or those on long-term, alternate-day, low-dose treatment; and
- Consider the zoster vaccine for those on low doses of methotrexate (<0.4 mg/kg/week) or azathioprine (<3 mg/kg/day) and those with impaired humoral (as opposed to cellular) immunity.
Additional Resources for Clinicians
Vaccination Schedule Recommendations
- Saag KG, Teng GG, Patkar NM, et al. American College of Rheumatology 2008 recommendations for the use of nonbiologic and biologic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs in rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Rheum. 2008;59:762-784.
- Adult Immunization Schedule: www.cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/schedules/adult-schedule.htm
- The Pink Book: Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine Preventable Diseases: www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/pink-chapters.htm
- CDC Vaccine Home Page: www.cdc.gov/vaccines/default.htm
Vaccines Prior to Travel
- MD Travel Health: www.mdtravelhealth.com
- CDC Yellow Book: wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/content/yellowbook/home-2010.aspx
Counsel Patients About Travel Concerns
Dr. Kotton said that her solid-organ transplant patients wait a year after transplant and achieving stability before they attempt travel to foreign countries. Some of the important issues for immunosuppressed RA patients include:
- Location of travel and risk of infection: ideally, patients should avoid travel to countries in the yellow fever zones, but at the very least they should avoid times of peak yellow fever activity (see “Additional Resources for Clinicians,” below right);
- Availability of good healthcare in the regions of travel;
- Length of travel: Dr. Kotton recommends shorter stays to reduce the risk of acquiring infections; and
- Type of travel: Visiting friends and relatives entails a higher risk for acquiring infections, while risk of infection is lower with luxury travel compared with backpacking or other more rustic modes.
Precautions regarding food- and water-borne illness, mosquito-borne illness, blood- and sex-borne infection, sun and altitude damage, and traveler’s diarrhea, including obtaining a course of antibiotics, should be part of every traveler’s preparations. Additionally, required vaccinations should be started early, said Dr. Kotton, and patients with immunosuppression must carry a yellow fever waiver letter, because the vaccine is contraindicated for them. Medical evacuation insurance can be a good precaution in case patients become sick in a foreign country, she added.