ACR Makes Changes to Adult, Pediatric Vaccinations Guidance

Tara Haelle

August 08, 2022

UPDATED August 9, 2022 // Editor's note: This article has been updated with additional comments.

Patients with rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases may need additional vaccines or different versions of vaccines they were not previously recommended to receive, according to updated guidelines from the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) on vaccinations for these patients. The new guidelines pertain to routine vaccinations for adults and children and are based on the most current evidence. They include recommendations on whether to hold certain medications before or after vaccination. They do not include recommendations regarding COVID-19 vaccines.

For guidance on COVID-19 vaccine timing and frequency, the ACR directs physicians to the CDC's recommendations for people with mild or severe immunosuppression and the ACR's previous clinical guidance summary on the topic, last revised in February 2022. The recommendations in the new guidance differ from ACR's guidance on COVID-19 vaccines on whether and when to hold immunosuppressive medications when patients receive nonlive vaccines. The new guidelines now align more closely with those of EULAR, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and the CDC's recommendations for human papillomavirus (HPV), pneumococcal, and shingles vaccines.

Vaccinations in this population are particularly important because "a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in those with rheumatic diseases is infections, due to the detrimental impact immunosuppression has on the ability for the patient to properly clear the pathogen," Alfred Kim, MD, PhD, a professor of rheumatology at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, told Medscape Medical News. While immunosuppressive medications are the most common reason patients with these conditions may have impaired immune function, "some of our patients with autoimmune disease also have a preexisting immunodeficiency that can inherently blunt immune responses to either infection or vaccination," Kim explained.

"The authors of the guidelines have done a really nice job of making distinct recommendations based on the mechanism of action of various immunosuppressive medications," Kim said. "This helps simplify the process of deciding the timing of vaccination for the health provider, especially for those on multiple immunosuppressives who represent an important proportion of our patients with rheumatic diseases."

The main change to the guidelines for children, aside from those related to flu vaccination, is in regard to rotavirus vaccination for infants exposed to tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors or rituximab in utero. Infants prenatally exposed to rituximab should not receive the rotavirus vaccine until they are older than 6 months. Those exposed prenatally to TNF inhibitors should receive the rotavirus vaccine on time, according to the CDC schedule for all infants.

The new rotavirus recommendations follow data showing that immune responses to rotavirus are blunted in those with infliximab exposure, according to Kim.

"Thus, this poses a serious theoretical risk in newborns with mothers on [a TNF inhibitor] of ineffective clearance of rotavirus infections," Kim told Medscape Medical News. "While rotavirus infections are quite common with typically self-limiting disease, sometimes requiring hydration to counteract diarrhea-induced dehydration, this can become severe in these newborns that have [a TNF inhibitor] in their system."

For adults, the ACR issued the following expanded indications for four vaccines for patients currently taking immunosuppressive medication:

  • Patients aged 18 and older should receive the recombinant zoster vaccine against shingles.

  • For patients aged 27–44 who weren't previously vaccinated against HPV, the HPV vaccine is "conditionally recommended."

  • Patients younger than 65 should receive the pneumococcal vaccine.

  • Patients aged 19–64 are conditionally recommended to receive the high-dose or adjuvanted flu vaccine rather than the regular-dose flu vaccine.

The guidelines also conditionally recommend that all patients aged 65 and older who have rheumatic or musculoskeletal diseases receive the high-dose or adjuvanted flu vaccine, regardless of whether they are taking immunosuppressive medication. Another new conditional recommendation is to give multiple vaccinations to patients on the same day, rather than give individual vaccines on different days.

The guidelines make conditional recommendations regarding flu and nonlive attenuated vaccines for those taking methotrexate, rituximab, or glucocorticoids. Methotrexate should be held for 2 weeks after flu vaccination as long as disease activity allows it, but patients who are taking methotrexate should continue taking it for any other nonlive attenuated vaccinations.

"Non-rheumatology providers, such as general pediatricians and internists, are encouraged to give the influenza vaccination and then consult with the patient's rheumatology provider about holding methotrexate to avoid a missed vaccination opportunity," the guidelines state.

Patients taking rituximab should receive the flu vaccine on schedule and continue taking rituximab. However, for these patients, the guidelines recommend to "delay any subsequent rituximab dosing for at least two weeks after influenza vaccination if disease activity allows."

"Because of the relatively short time period between the rollout of the influenza vaccine and its season, we can't always wait to time the B-cell depletion dosage," Kim said. "Also, it is not always easy to synchronize the patient's B-cell depletion dosing schedule to the influenza vaccine rollout. Thus, we now just recommend getting the influenza vaccine regardless of the patient's last B-cell depletion dosage despite its known strong attenuation of optimal immune responses."

For other nonlive attenuated vaccines, providers should time vaccination for when the next rituximab dose is due and then hold the drug for at least 2 weeks thereafter, providing time for the B cells to mount a response before rituximab depletes B cells again.

Patients taking less than 20 mg of prednisone daily should still receive the flu vaccine and other nonlive attenuated vaccines. Those taking 20 mg or more of prednisone each day should still receive the flu vaccine, but other vaccines should be deferred until their dose of glucocorticoids has been tapered down to less than 20 mg daily.

Patients taking all other immunosuppressive medications should continue taking them for the flu vaccine and other nonlive attenuated vaccinations, but it is conditionally recommended that live attenuated vaccines be deferred. For any patient with a rheumatic and musculoskeletal disease, regardless of disease activity, it is conditionally recommended that all routine nonlive attenuated vaccines be administered.

For live attenuated virus vaccines, the ACR provides a chart on which immunosuppressive medications to hold and for how long. Glucocorticoids, methotrexate, azathioprine, leflunomide, mycophenolate mofetil, calcineurin inhibitors, and oral cyclophosphamide should all be held 4 weeks before and 4 weeks after administration of a live attenuated vaccine. For those taking JAK inhibitors, the medication should be halted 1 week before administration of a live vaccine and should continue to be withheld for 4 weeks after.

For most other biologics, the ACR recommends holding the medication for one dosing interval before the live vaccine and 4 weeks thereafter. The main exception is rituximab, which should be held for 6 months before a live vaccine and then for 4 more weeks thereafter.

For patients receiving intravenous immunoglobulin, the drug should be held for 8–11 months before they are administered a live attenuated vaccine, depending on the dosage, and then 4 weeks after vaccination, regardless of dosage.

To reassure people with rheumatic disease who may have anxiety or concerns about receiving immunizations, whether taking immunosuppressive medication or not, Kim said it's important to provide lots of education to patients.

"Fear and emotion have replaced facts, and data as a leading factor in decision-making, as seen with COVID-19," Kim said. "The reality is that a small minority of people will have any issues with most vaccines, which include disease flares, adverse events, or acquisition of an autoimmune disease. We are not saying there is zero risk, rather, that the risk is quite small. This is where shared decision-making between the healthcare provider and the patient must be done effectively to enable the patient to properly weigh risk vs benefit."

Kim has relationships with GlaxoSmithKline, Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, Kypha, Pfizer, Alexion Pharmaceuticals, AstraZeneca, Exagen Diagnostics, and Foghorn Therapeutics.

Tara Haelle is an independent science journalist based in Texas who writes about medical research. Find her at @tarahaelle.

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