Can I get the COVID-19 vaccine if I have an autoimmune disease?

Is the COVID-19 vaccine right for autoimmune disease patients?
The COVID-19 vaccine is expected to roll out to members of the public in early 2021. Image courtesy of the BBC.

As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out across the nation, many members of the public are wondering if getting vaccinated against the coronavirus is right for them. More specifically, those with autoimmune disorders, a disease class in which one’s own immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues, wonder if they are candidates for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Shafinaz Akhter, Physician at Chester County Hospital in Philadelphia, PA, states, “Our advice has always been that there is no harm to getting it. It is very unlikely that you’re going to have an adverse reaction or worsening symptoms from your underlying disease based upon receiving the vaccination.” For this reason, she says that at her hospital, they are recommending that anyone with an autoimmune disease, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or Crohn’s, get vaccinated.

Furthermore, Dr. Akhter adds that many autoimmune disease patients take immunosuppressants or other immune-modulating prescription drugs, which are medications designed to decrease immune system overactivity and the damaging inflammation that comes along with it. These medications may reduce the vaccine’s ability to stimulate your body to mount an immune response against the virus. For this reason, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider regarding the timing of when you take your medications and when you receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Examples of such medications include methotrexate or rituximab.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, weighed in on the subject, stating, “It is clear that if you are on immunosuppressant agents, history tells us that you are not going to have as robust a response as if you had an intact immune system that was not being compromised. But some degree of immunity is better than no degree of immunity. So, for me, it would be recommended that these people do get vaccinated.”

The CDC, for its part, has stated that those with autoimmune conditions may receive the COVID-19 vaccine, while also acknowledging that no data currently exists with regards to the safety of these vaccines for autoimmune disease patients. 

The CDC adds that it is expected that the risk of the COVID vaccine for autoimmune disease patients to be minimal, based on the vaccine’s mechanism of action. This is because none of the COVID vaccines use a live virus, nor do they include an adjuvant, which is a substance that enhances the body’s immune response to an antigen. Finally, none of the available vaccines become incorporated in your own genetic material (i.e. DNA), since they are mRNA vaccines.

As with any new medical treatment, it’s encouraged to speak with your healthcare provider before making a decision on whether or not to get the vaccine, so that they can advise you based on your specific situation. To learn more about the COVID-19 vaccines, visit the CDC website.

Are you planning to get the COVID-19 vaccine? Let us know in the comments below!

American Family to Immigrate to Canada After Type 1 Diabetes Diagnosis

The Reseburgs have applied to immigrate to Canada as a result of their daughter’s medical diagnosis. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Amanda Reseburg and her husband of Janesville, Wisconsin, have applied to immigrate to Nova Scotia, a province in Atlantic Canada. While Reseburg has always admired the region’s coastal views, the beautiful scenery is not the reason for her family’s desire to move.

Reseburg’s nine-year-old daughter, Molly, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition in which the body’s own immune system destroys insulin-producing cells, called islets, in the pancreas. Consequently, the body produces little to no insulin, an important hormone that enables glucose to enter cells and produce energy. Symptoms of the condition can include fatigue and weakness, blurred vision, unintended weight loss, extreme hunger, increased thirst and frequent urination, among other complications.

The family is hoping that by moving to the Canadian province, they will receive better insurance coverage and more affordable insulin. Reseburg says her daughter takes six to 10 needles a day of long-acting and short-acting insulin. She is also using a continuous glucose monitoring system, which monitors her blood sugar levels and must be replaced every 10 days.

Reseburg says they have been fortunate thus far- their family has medical coverage through her husband’s employment. However, given the current state of the economy and how closely medical insurance is tied to employment in the United States, she wonders what would happen if he were to lose his job.

Nine-year-old Molly Reseburg was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease impacting her insulin levels. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Another consideration is that once their daughter becomes an adult, she may no longer be eligible to be on their insurance coverage. Reseburg said, “I don’t want to tell my kids, ‘Go find a good office job.’ I want them to be able to do what they want to do, and not have to worry about insurance.”

The affordability of insulin is another concern. While she has never had to go across the border to buy insulin, she understands why people do it. “I don’t see America getting on board [affordable insulin] any time soon, so that’s why we’re looking to move,” she explained.

Reseburg has also been frustrated with the lack of consumer choice with her daughter’s medication. Several months ago, her insurance company informed her that they would no longer be covering the insulin her daughter currently takes, and would be switching her to a new type of insulin instead. “We don’t get any say in that whatsoever. They decide what insulin they will allow us to have,” she lamented.

This is particularly concerning due to the fact that her daughter Molly also suffers from a chromosomal condition called Turner syndrome, which impacts the effectiveness of the insulin she takes. And, not only was the type of insulin changed, but the insurance company is covering $75 less, resulting in the family having to pay even more out of pocket for this necessary treatment.

The family has retained an immigration lawyer to help them with their Canadian immigration application. On top of attorney fees, the immigration fees cost several thousand dollars, plus extensive paperwork detailing how the family will be able to adapt to their new country and how they plan to contribute to the economy. The mountain of paperwork is worth it, however, since the family says that if their application is successful, their daughter’s insulin will be covered and she’ll no longer be at the mercy of their insurance company.

While it usually takes about two years to immigrate to Canada, the COVID-19 situation could draw out the process even longer. Nevertheless, the family is hopeful that their plan will pan out. “We’ll get their eventually,” Reseburg said.

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Critical Autoimmune Treatment Becomes Scarce as Trump Touts Possible COVID-19 Benefits

A health care professional holds up Plaquenil, which is being explored as an experimental treatment for COVID-19 (Photo credit: The New York Post).

Last week, I stopped by the pharmacy to pick up my prescriptions – a normal occurrence for any autoimmune disease patient. As I waited in line, a heard a young woman ask for Plaquenil, an anti-malaria drug commonly used to treat autoimmune conditions such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and Sjogren’s Syndrome.

Unfortunately, the pharmacist responded that they were completely out of Plaquenil, and they weren’t sure when they were going to have the medication in stock again. The patient, looking upset, left the pharmacy empty-handed.

It’s no surprise that Plaquenil, and its generic counterpart, Hydroxychloroquine, is in short supply. During recent press conferences, President Trump claimed that the drug had potential to treat those suffering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. He was swiftly contradicted by his top infectious diseases adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said that the evidence that the drug was helpful for the virus was anecdotal at best.

Despite the experimental nature of the drug for treating COVID-19, this hasn’t stopped people from trying to stockpile the drug. In fact, a recent New York Times article stated that pharmacy boards have discovered that doctors are hoarding the medication by writing prescriptions for themselves and their family members. The situation is especially dire in the states of Idaho, Kentucky, Ohio, Nevada, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Texas.

The American Medical Association’s president, Dr. Patrice Harris, denounced the practice, saying that the association “is calling for a stop to any inappropriate prescription and ordering of medications…and appealing to physicians and all health care professionals to follow the highest standards of professionalism and ethics.”

As a result, a number of pharmaceutical boards have imposed restrictions, such as barring pharmacies from dispensing both chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine unless the prescription includes a written diagnosis of a condition that the drugs have been proven to treat. Other rules include limiting the prescription to a 14-day supply unless a patient has previously taken the medication.

Still, not every state’s board has taken action to ensure that the drug is made readily available to autoimmune disease patients. As a result, the Lupus Foundation of America, Arthritis Foundation, and other medical associations have issued a joint statement urging the White House to ensure access to the medication during the COVID-19 crisis, citing the fact that it is the only known drug shown to increase survival in patients with lupus.

For Sue Hauk, a 48-year-old lupus patient from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, Plaquenil has been a lifesaver. Her main lupus symptoms include: joint pain, chest pain, fatigue, and nausea, which this medication helps to keep in check. When she first heard reports of the medication being scarce, she contacted her pharmacy to request a refill of her prescription, but they couldn’t offer her more than a five day supply. She then called seven different in-state pharmacies, and then five out-of-state pharmacies – each were either out of stock, or refused to fill her prescription since she wasn’t an existing customer.

“I thought, that can’t happen to me, because I’m on this and this is my life-sustaining drug. If I can’t find more, once it’s out of my system I don’t know what will happen,” Hauk said. “I’m at a loss right now.”

Sue Hauk, a lupus patient, is concerned that she won’t have access to her life-saving medication due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo credit: PBS).

There are over 1.5 million Americans living with the autoimmune disease lupus, who could be adversely impacted by the unnecessary stockpiling of this medication. While it’s funny to joke about people stockpiling items like toilet paper, hoarding medication has much more serious consequences.

Samantha Wayne, another lupus patient who has been taking the drug for the last 12 years, said in her YouTube video that hydroxychloroquine ensures that her symptoms don’t flare up and cause more inflammatory damage. She says it also prevents many patients from having to utilize more intensive therapies, such as immunosuppressant organ transplant drugs or chemotherapy. She also points out that this may be the only treatment deemed safe for use for pregnant autoimmune patients. She concludes the video stating that while she’s concerned about finding a way to combat the coronavirus, “those of us with autoimmune issues, such as lupus, we matter too.”

Samantha Wayne, a lupus patient and YouTuber, is raising awareness about the consequences of autoimmune patients not having access to hydroxychloroquine (Photo credit: Live Hope Lupus).

Cindy Messerle, CEO of the Lupus Foundation of America‘s Philadelphia Chapter, echoed those sentiments, saying, “I do hope that a treatment for COVID-19 is found ASAP. If it happens to be with hydroxychloroquine, the important thing is that people who take in on a daily basis for lupus and other autoimmune diseases have uninterrupted access to their medication.”

To read more about our coronavirus coverage, check out the following blog posts: