Is This Illness Related to COVID-19 Autoimmune?

Healthcare professionals are grappling with the effects of pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MICS), a complication of COVID-19 in children

Across the world, disturbing reports are coming through detailing a new complication thought to be related to COVID-19 that is affecting children with the virus. The illness, called pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MICS for short, causes the immune system to overreact, leading to dangerously high levels of inflammation throughout the body. It impacts the body’s major organs, including the heart, liver, and kidneys, among other parts of the body.

Juliet Daly, a 12-year old girl from Louisiana, was diagnosed with both COVID-19 and MICS after going through cardiac arrest. Thankfully, she was airlifted to a children’s hospital, where she was put on a ventilator until she could breath on her own and her heart and other organs had recovered.

Juliet Daly was diagnosed with COVID-19 and pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome after being admitted to the hospital. Image courtesy of CNN.

Pediatric multisystem inflammatory sundrome has been compared to Kawasaki disease, an inflammatory condition primarily found in children under age five that impacts the heart’s coronary arteries. Kawsaki disease can lead to complications like artery enlargement, aneurysms, issues with the lymph nodes, skin, and the lining of the nose, throat and mouth. Some experts hypothesize that the coronavirus could be a trigger for Kawasaki disease. A recent study done in Bergamo, Italy found that the incidence of a ‘severe, Kawasaki-like disease’ increased 30-fold after the virus broke out in the region, further supporting this theory.

Pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome also bears the hallmarks of a cytokine storm, a phenomenon in which the body’s immune system overreacts to the virus and mounts a harmful inflammatory response in the body.

This raises the question, is MICS autoimmune in nature? While little is known about the condition, Dr. Randall Williams, Director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said during a recent press conference that the condition is an “autoimmune reaction“, and that “it’s basically where your body reacts to an antigen and starts attacking itself.”

The relationship between viruses and autoimmune disease has been studied in the past. For example, studies have found a link between the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and the pathogenesis of a number of autoimmune diseases including lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes, and celiac disease.

Though there isn’t a cure for MICS, it’s treated by giving patients steroid and intravenous medications commonly issued to patients with an autoimmune disease, in an effort to decrease damaging inflammation.

While the coronavirus has proven to be less common and less deadly in children than adults, two young children and a teen with COVID-19 who showed Kawasaki disease symptoms have died in the state of New York. As a result, parents are advised to take precautions and contact their pediatrician or family medicine provider if your child has a fever to determine the best next steps.

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Autoimmune Disease on the Rise in the United States

An April 2020 study published in Arthritis and Rheumatology suggests that autoimmune disease is on the rise in the United States.

In the study, researchers found that the prevalence of the most common biomarkers of autoimmune disease, called antinuclear antibodies (ANAs), is significantly increasing in the U.S. overall as well as among certain populations. These affected populations include:

  • Men
  • Non-Hispanic whites
  • Adolescents
  • Adults 50 year and older

The researchers examined over 14,000 patients ages 12 and up over the course of three time periods spanning 30 years. In this time frame, they discovered that the overall frequency of ANAs in their test subjects went from 11% affected individuals to almost 16% affected. The worst affected population was the adolescent group, who experienced a nearly three-fold increase in ANA rates over the course of the study period.

While the exact cause of autoimmune disease remains unknown, many scientists believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors is responsible. However, the researchers in the study state that because people have not changed much genetically over the past 30 years, it is more likely that lifestyle or environmental factors are responsible for the ANA increases.

Christine Parks, PhD, is one of the researchers involved in the study who focuses on the environmental causes of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other autoimmune diseases. “These new findings…will help us design studies to better understand why some people develop autoimmune diseases,” she said. She also added that there are over 100 chronic, debilitating autoimmune conditions that could stand to benefit from further research.

Donna Jackson Nakazawa, a Maryland-based science journalist and author of the book The Autoimmune Epidemic, believes that our ever-increasing exposure to chemicals, heavy metals, and viruses, coupled with stress, dietary and other lifestyle factors, is primarily to blame for the increase in autoimmune disease. She also points out that there may be a connection between autoimmune disease and allergies, which are also skyrocketing.

Nakazawa herself suffers from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a paralyzing autoimmune disease similar to multiple sclerosis (MS). In her latest book, The Last Best Cure, she states that experts predict that the number of Americans who suffer from chronic conditions will rise an astonishing 37% by 2030.

While this may not sound like positive news, one good thing is that with an increase in autoimmune disease, more scientists, medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies will be encouraged to undertake research to find treatments and, ultimately, a cure for autoimmunity. I personally am hopeful that we will see enormous strides in biotechnology in my lifetime.

Are you surprised by the increase in autoimmune disease in the U.S.? Let us know in the comments below!

Why Autoimmune Patients with COVID-19 Should Beware of the Cytokine Storm

As the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the COVID-19 disease continues to infect people and claim lives across the globe, scientists and medical professionals are learning more about its impact on patients.

One interesting phenomenon that’s been observed is that some coronavirus patients experience relatively mild to moderate symptoms, while others experience severe, life-threatening problems that can land them in the ER. According to Sharp Health News, the virus itself may not be entirely to blame for this, but rather, an overreaction by the body’s immune system.

When a foreign agent, such as a virus, invades your body, your immune cells secrete cytokines, which are molecules that initiate an immune response. However, in some cases, immune cells continue to secrete cytokines, even after a sufficient immune response has been mounted. This is called a ‘cytokine storm’ and the overproduction of these molecules can cause a harmful inflammatory response in the body.

Certain people are more susceptible to cytokine storms than others; for example, there is evidence that those with genetic mutations in their immune cells are more vulnerable. According to creakyjoints.org, those with autoimmune conditions often have abnormally high levels of these cytokines, which is why autoimmune patients often take immune-suppressing medications. However, a cytokine storm isn’t the same as an autoimmune disease flare, though they can be related.

As detailed by creakyjoints.org, some autoimmune patients end up with cytokine storms unrelated to COVID-19. Dr. Randy Cron, a pediatric rheumatologist and author of the book Cytokine Storm Syndrome commented, “About 10% of patients with juvenile idiopathic arthritis will experience [a cytokine storm]; in some cases, multiple times.”

With regards to COVID-19, which is respiratory in nature, a cytokine storm can gravely impact a patient. Acute lung injury (ALI) is a common consequence of a cytokine storm occurring in the lungs, and if a lung infection is severe, the inflammation will spread to the rest of the body via one’s blood circulation and cause sepsis. In some cases, the immune response to an infection can even be deadly.

That’s why it’s important to ‘calm the storm’ and prevent a cytokine storm before it even happens. One type of treatment being explored for COVID-19 is hydroxychloroquine, which is an antiviral and immunosuppressant drug used to treat malaria and autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and Sjogren’s. Although the medication is still undergoing clinical trials, many are hopeful that this drug will serve as a treatment to halt the progression of COVID-19.

Besides pharmaceutical therapies, Sharp Health News cites curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, as beneficial for its anti-inflammatory properties. A 2015 study states that in lab experiments, researchers found that curcumin blocked the release of the cytokines that are responsible for inflammation.

All in all, it’s important for autoimmune patients to guard against the coronavirus by adhering to strict hygiene guidelines, such as hand washing thoroughly with soap and water, avoiding close contact with others, and disinfecting surfaces routinely. Remember, prevention is the best form of treatment, and can help those with autoimmune disease to avoid a damaging cytokine storm.