Researchers at Michigan Medicine recently found that a small but significant percentage of Americans under the age of 65 take medications that can weaken their immune system. These medications increase one's risk of Covid-19 symptoms and make them more likely to require hospitalization if they contract the virus. Moreover, there is growing evidence that these drugs may reduce the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccinations.
Read on to find out which prescription drugs may cause this, and what can be done to mitigate the problem.
Data analysis from more than 3 million adults found that nearly 3% take immunosuppressive drugs. These kinds of drugs are usually used to treat conditions where there is an inappropriate immune response that sees certain parts of a person’s body as a threat. When the immune system begins to attack these body parts, it can end up damaging them. An example of this type of condition is rheumatoid arthritis, where the immune system attacks the joints. Immunosuppressive drugs are used to decrease the damage done to the patient’s own tissues.
Another case where people might be prescribed immunosuppressive drugs would be after an organ transplant. Certain types of chemotherapy also have the side effect of suppressing the immune system.
While these types of medications are only used by people with specific chronic conditions, there is also a type of immunosuppressive drug that is significantly more commonly used - steroids.
Steroids are medications like prednisone and dexamethasone. They are usually prescribed to treat short-term ailments like allergic rashes, bronchitis, and sinus infections. As Dr. Beth Wallace, a rheumatologist at Michigan Medicine, explained to Healthline, “Steroids are very immunosuppressive. We’re learning more and more that even short courses and low doses of steroids can increase people’s risk of infections, and can reduce their response to vaccines, like the COVID vaccine.”
Vaccines work by teaching the immune system to recognize a specific threat so that it can respond appropriately if it ever encounters the same threat again. However, according to Dr. Wallace, immunosuppressive drugs work by reducing the ability of your immune system to recognize and fight off threats.
The new study comes at a time when doctors are beginning to realize the negative effects immunosuppressants may have on patients’ response to the Covid-19 vaccination. This raises the question, 'How can this problem be mitigated?'
Researchers are currently investigating several strategies. However, as of right now, “it's difficult to formulate guidelines around vaccinating these patients." Possible solutions that are currently being looked into are temporarily halting the use of immunosuppressive medications around the time of the Covid-19 vaccination and giving an extra ‘booster’ shot.
Dr. Meghan Baker, a hospital epidemiologist who works with immunocompromised patients at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, added that experts often recommend completing the Covid-19 vaccine series at least two weeks before starting the medications. If this is not possible, however, they recommend that patients speak with their personal physician about the risks versus benefits of delaying therapy.
It’s important to note that specific recommendations regarding the timing of immune-suppressing medications would have to be tailored to the needs of the individual. For example, if someone is doing chemotherapy to treat active cancer, the risk of temporarily stopping that treatment is different from the risk of stopping a medication that someone has been taking for years to treat their stable rheumatoid arthritis.
In general, experts claim that people on immunosuppressive therapies can and should get vaccinated. Although the protective effect may be reduced depending on the underlying condition or the immunosuppressive therapy, most people will still get some degree of protection from the vaccine. “It may reduce the chance that they become infected or develop the severe illness if infected,” said Baker.
Due to this risk, those who are immunocompromised must continue taking precautions to minimize potential exposure to the novel coronavirus. We will keep you updated on any new developments on this topic, of course.
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