ACR Issues Guidances for MIS-C and Pediatric Rheumatic Disease During Pandemic

Tara Haelle

June 26, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Two new clinical guidance documents from the American College of Rheumatology provide evidence-based recommendations for managing pediatric rheumatic disease during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as diagnostic and treatment recommendations for multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) associated with COVID-19 infection.

Although several children's hospitals have published their treatment protocols for MIS-C since the condition's initial discovery, the ACR appears to be the first medical organization to review all the most current evidence to issue interim guidance with the expectations that it will change as more data become available.

Dr. Dawn Wahezi

"It is challenging having to make recommendations not having a lot of scientific evidence, but we still felt we had to use whatever's out there to the best of our ability and use our experience to put together these recommendations," Dawn M. Wahezi, MD, chief of pediatric rheumatology at Children's Hospital at Montefiore and an associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, said in an interview.

"We wanted to be mindful of the fact that there are things we know and things we don't know, and we have to be careful about what we're recommending," said Dr. Wahezi, a member of the ACR working group that assembled the recommendations for pediatric rheumatic disease management during the pandemic. "We're recommending the best we can at this moment, but if there are new studies that come out and suggest otherwise, we will definitely have to go back and amend the document."

The foremost priority of the pediatric rheumatic disease guidance focuses on maintaining control of the disease and avoiding flares that may put children at greater risk of infection. Dr. Wahezi said the ACR has received many calls from patients and clinicians asking whether patients should continue their immunosuppressant medications. Fear of the coronavirus infection, medication shortages, difficulty getting to the pharmacy, uneasiness about going to the clinic or hospital for infusions, and other barriers may have led to gaps in medication.

"We didn't want people to be too quick to hold patients' medications just because they were scared of COVID," Dr. Wahezi said. "If they did have medication stopped for one reason or another and their disease flared, having active disease, regardless of which disease it is, actually puts you at higher risk for infection. By controlling their disease, that would be the way to protect them the most."

Dr. Lauren Henderson

A key takeaway in the guidance on MIS-C, meanwhile, is an emphasis on its rarity lest physicians be too quick to diagnose it and miss another serious condition with overlapping symptoms, explained Lauren Henderson, MD, an attending rheumatologist at Boston Children's Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Boston. Dr. Henderson participated in the ACR group that wrote the MIS-C guidance.

"The first thing we want to be thoughtful about clinically is to recognize that children in general with the acute infectious phase of SARS-CoV-2 have mild symptoms and generally do well," Dr. Henderson said. "From what we can tell from all the data, MIS-C is rare. That really needs to be considered when clinicians on the ground are doing the diagnostic evaluation" because of concerns that clinicians "could rush to diagnose and treat patients with MIS-C and miss important diagnoses like malignancies and infections."

Management of Pediatric Rheumatic Disease During the Pandemic

The COVID-19 clinical guidance for managing pediatric rheumatic disease grew from the work of the North American Pediatric Rheumatology Clinical Guidance Task Force, which included seven pediatric rheumatologists, two pediatric infectious disease physicians, one adult rheumatologist, and one pediatric nurse practitioner. The general guidance covers usual preventive measures for reducing risk for COVID-19 infection, the recommendation that children continue to receive recommended vaccines unless contraindicated by medication, and routine in-person visits for ophthalmologic surveillance of those with a history of uveitis or at high risk for chronic uveitis. The guidance also notes the risk of mental health concerns, such as depression and anxiety, related to quarantine and the pandemic.

The top recommendation is initiation or continuation of all medications necessary to control underlying disease, including NSAIDs, hydroxychloroquine, ACE inhibitors/angiotensin II receptor blockers, colchicine, conventional disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (cDMARDs), biologic DMARDs, and targeted synthetic DMARDs. Even patients who may have had exposure to COVID-19 or who have an asymptomatic COVID-19 infection should continue to take these medications with the exception of ACEi/ARBs.

In those with pediatric rheumatic disease who have a symptomatic COVID-19 infection, "NSAIDs, HCQ, and colchicine may be continued, if necessary, to control underlying disease," as can interleukin (IL)-1 and IL-6 inhibitors, but "cDMARDs, bDMARDs [except IL-1 and IL-6 inhibitors] and tsDMARDs should be temporarily delayed or withheld," according to the guidance. Glucocorticoids can be continued at the lowest possible dose to control disease.

"There's nothing in the literature that suggests people who have rheumatic disease, especially children, and people who are on these medications, really are at increased risk for COVID-19," Dr. Wahezi said. "That's why we didn't want people to be overcautious in stopping medications when the main priority is to control their disease."

She noted some experts' speculations that these medications may actually benefit patients with rheumatic disease who develop a COVID-19 infection because the medications keep the immune response in check. "If you allow them to have this dysregulated immune response and have active disease, you're potentially putting them at greater risk," Dr. Wahezi said, although she stressed that inadequate evidence exists to support these speculations right now.

Lack of evidence has been the biggest challenge all around with developing this guidance, she said.

"Because this is such an unprecedented situation and because people are so desperate to find treatments both for the illness and to protect those at risk for it, there are lots of people trying to put evidence out there, but it may not be the best-quality evidence," Dr. Wahezi said.

Insufficient evidence also drove the group's determination that "SARS-CoV-2 antibody testing is not useful in informing on the history of infection or risk of reinfection," as the guidance states. Too much variability in the assays exist, Dr. Wahezi said, and, further, it's unclear what the clinical significance of a positive test would be.

"We didn't want anyone to feel they had to make clinical decisions based on the results of that antibody testing," she said. "Even if the test is accurate, we don't know how to interpret it because it's so new."

The guidance also notes that patients with stable disease and previously stable lab markers on stable doses of their medication may be able to extend the interval for medication toxicity lab testing a few months if there is concern about exposure to COVID-19 to get the blood work.

"If you're just starting a medicine or there's someone who's had abnormalities with the medicine in the past or you're making medication adjustments, you wouldn't do it in those scenarios, but if there's someone who's been on the drug for a long time and are nervous to get [blood] drawn, it's probably okay to delay it," Dr. Wahezi said. Lab work for disease activity measures, on the other hand, remain particularly important, especially since telemedicine visits may require clinicians to rely on lab results more than previously.

Management of MIS-C Associated With COVID-19

The task force that developed guidance for the new inflammatory condition recently linked to SARS-CoV-2 infections in children included nine pediatric rheumatologists, two adult rheumatologists, two pediatric cardiologists, two pediatric infectious disease specialists, and one pediatric critical care physician.

The guidance includes a figure for the diagnostic pathway in evaluating children suspected of having MIS-C and extensive detail on diagnostic work-up, but the task force intentionally avoided providing a case definition for the condition. Existing case definitions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and the United Kingdom's Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health differ from one another and are based on unclear evidence, Dr. Henderson noted. "We really don't have enough data to know the sensitivity and specificity of each parameter, and until that's available, we didn't want to add to the confusion," she said.

The guidance also stresses that MIS-C is a rare complication, so patients suspected of having the condition who do not have "life-threatening manifestations should undergo diagnostic evaluation for MIS-C as well as other possible infectious and noninfectious etiologies before immunomodulatory treatment is initiated," the guidance states.

Unless a child is in shock or otherwise requires urgent care, physicians should take the time to complete the diagnostic work-up while monitoring the child, Dr. Henderson said. If the child does have MIS-C, the guidance currently recommends intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) and/or glucocorticoids to prevent coronary artery aneurysms, the same treatment other institutions have been recommending.

"We don't have rigorous comparative studies looking at different types of treatments," Dr. Henderson said, noting that the vast majority of children in the literature received IVIG and/or glucocorticoid treatment. "Often children really responded quite forcefully to those treatments, but we don't have high-quality data yet to know that this treatment is better than supportive care or another medication."

Dr. Henderson also stressed the importance of children receiving care at a facility with the necessary expertise to manage MIS-C and receiving long-term follow-up care from a multidisciplinary clinical team that includes a rheumatologist, an infectious disease doctor, a cardiologist, and possibly a hematologist.

"Making sure children are admitted to a hospital that has the resources and are followed by physicians with expertise or understanding of the intricacies of MIS-C is really important," she said, particularly for children with cardiac involvement. "We don't know if all the kids presenting with left ventricular dysfunction and shock are at risk for having myocardial fibrosis down the line," she noted. "There is so much we do not understand and very little data to guide us on what to do, so these children really need to be under the care of a cardiologist and rheumatologist to make sure that their care is tailored to them."

Although MIS-C shares overlapping symptoms with Kawasaki disease, it's still unclear how similar or different the two conditions are, Dr. Henderson said.

"We can definitely say that when we look at MIS-C and compare it to historical groups of Kawasaki disease before the pandemic, there are definitely different features in the MIS-C group," she said. Kawasaki disease generally only affects children under age 5, whereas MIS-C patients run the gamut from age 1-17. Racial demographics are also different, with a higher proportion of black children affected by MIS-C.

It's possible that the pathophysiology of both conditions will turn out to be similar, particularly given the hypothesis that Kawasaki disease is triggered by infections in genetically predisposed people. However, the severity of symptoms and risk of aneurysms appear greater with MIS-C so far.

"The degree to which these patients are presenting with left ventricular dysfunction and shock is much higher than what we've seen previously," Dr. Henderson said. "Children can have aneurysms even if they don't meet all the Kawasaki disease features, which makes it feel that this is somehow clinically different from what we've seen before. It's not just the kids who have the rash and the conjunctivitis and the extremity changes and oral changes who have the aneurysms."

The reason for including both IVIG and glucocorticoids as possible first-line drugs to prevent aneurysms is that some evidence suggests children with MIS-C may have higher levels of IVIG resistance, she said.

Like Dr. Wahezi, Dr. Henderson emphasized the necessarily transient nature of these recommendations.

"These recommendations will almost certainly change based on evolving understanding of MIS-C and the data," Dr. Henderson said, adding that this new, unique condition highlights the importance of including children in allocating funding for research and in clinical trials.

"Children are not always identical to adults, and it's really important that we have high-quality data to inform our decisions about how to care for them," she said.

Dr. Wahezi had no disclosures. Dr. Henderson has consulted for Sobi and Adaptive Technologies. The guidelines did not note other disclosures for members of the ACR groups.

SOURCES: COVID-19 Clinical Guidance for Pediatric Patients with Rheumatic Disease and Clinical Guidance for Pediatric Patients with Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) Associated with SARS-CoV-2 and Hyperinflammation in COVID-19

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