Don’t Ask for Permission. Ask for Forgiveness. Update from the NIH on which MS medications are safe and which make you more vulnerable to Covid-19.

The email I was hoping to get three weeks ago has just arrived in my inbox. The researchers running the clinical trial I skipped last week have finally come to the conclusion that maybe non-essential visits to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) are not such a good idea, after all.

The letter then went on to confirm that the MS drug I’ve been taking makes me moderately more immune-compromised, and therefore more vulnerable to Covid-19. Fortunately, I hadn’t waited for notification from the NIH, or from my neurologist. My dear friend MD (not a doctor) had prompted me to do a risk benefit analysis of taking Tecfidera in the age of Covid-19. I already knew Tecfidera is fairly useless at this stage in my disease, so it didn’t have any benefit to balance even the faintest risk. I’ve been off Tecfidera for three weeks now, and only regret that I didn’t get off it sooner.

I did go through the motions and wrote to “ask” my neurologist if he thought discontinuing my MS medication would be a good idea.

“Hello. I was wondering what you would think about my dropping Tecfidera? At this point I am more scared of Covid-19 than of MS. If Tecfidera lowers my immunity to Covid-19 even slightly, that’s not worth it to me, especially since there is little evidence Tecfidera is very effective against late stage MS. My first priority is to stay alive. What would you do, if you were me?”

I’d been off Tecfidera for two days when I got his response, “Although Tecfidera has not drop your lymphocyte but I can not say for sure it does not weakened your immune system. I understand and agree with you on holding it for now.”

One of the perks of being a lab rat is that you get to learn wonderful information from the leading minds in the field. I’d like to share the passage in the email from the principal investigator of my NIH trial. The passage outlines the role various MS medications play in potentially heightening vulnerability to threats like Covid-19. Perhaps this assessment will inspire others on MS medications to “ask” their neurologist about continuing on their drug:

What to do if your private neurologist is prescribing you a multiple sclerosis (MS) drug.

Not all MS drugs are the same when it comes to their effect on immune system and specifically, on the part of immune system that is important for fighting viral infections such as the coronavirus.

Based on current knowledge, I believe that it is safe to start or continue any preparation of interferon beta (i.e., Avonex, Rebif, Betaseron, Extavia, Plegridy). In fact, even though we do not know if interferon beta preparations inhibit COVID19 virus, these drugs do inhibit similar viruses in a test tube and likely in humans. Therefore, there is theoretical possibility that these drugs may in fact be beneficial.

Similarly, glatiramer preparations (i.e., Copaxone, Glatopa, Glatiramer acetate) are unlikely to suppress your immunity against viruses and should be safe to start or continue.

MS patients on all other medications should be considered immunocompromised and therefore at greater risk of COVID19 infection. We have shown that when taking data from >28,000 MS patients who participated in clinical trials of these medications, the beneficial effects of all MS drugs decrease with the age of patients so that after age 53, these drugs do not slow progression of disability compared to sugar pill called placebo. This does not mean that current drugs should not be given to any person older than age 53. In fact, we do recommend these drugs to patients older than age 53 if they still experience MS relapses and if they make lot of new lesions on brain or spinal cord MRI. If you are older than age 53, have not had MS relapse for several years and your MRI is not showing new lesions, you may want to discuss with your private neurologist whether you should continue your MS drugs, especially during COVID19 threat. These drugs do lower your immunity and we have seen serious infections (with other pathogens than COVID19) in older people with MS. “

The letter also has a lovely section with advice for those of you gentle readers who do not have MS.

I am sharing that section as well:

What should everybody do to protect themselves from COVID19 infection

Everybody, whether they are young or old, have MS, other disease or are completely healthy, are receiving immunosuppressive treatments or not, should immediately take precautionary measures consisting of:

  • Social distancing: try to keep 6 feet away from other people. After closer social contact, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. The virus does not survive soap and water. You do not need to use other measures if you have soap and water available.
  • Hand hygiene: wash your hands with soap and water as described above several times per day and always after close contact with other human being, or when you are outside and have touched surfaces that were touched by other people. Because you are unlikely to have soap and water when you are outside of your house, use hand sanitizers.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, face, mouth.
  • If you get fever, shortness of breath, dry cough, malaise – call your doctor. Do not go to medical centers. Your doctor will determine whether you need COVID19 screening test and will arrange for you to get the test. You should go to medical center/call ambulance only if you have problems with breathing (shortness of breath: breathing heavily, frequently and having bluish lips) – then you should not wait to talk to your doctor.
  • It does not help you if you are doing everything right, but your family members are not: the same rules for social isolation and hand hygiene must apply to your family members and anybody who enters your house.
  • Worrying will not help you. Worrying increases hormones steroids, which suppress immune system. If you allow yourself to worry, you are effectively hurting yourself. Not everything is within our control: we need to do things that are within our control and let go of the rest. Meditate, listen to birds singing outside, read books, talk to loved ones on the phone, stay positive.”

Gentle Reader, be well! Be good. But don’t be meek. Don’t wait for permission to take care of yourself!

Update 05/06/2020

Today I read that there is some evidence that Ocrevus was actually helpful for an MS patient in Italy who contracted Covid-19. I’m so happy to learn people on Ocrevus may not necessarily have to choose between protecting themselves from Covid-19 and protecting themselves from MS!

Flummoxed (Part 4 of 4)

My friend Monica also has MS. She does not medicate. Which is not to say she does not treat her MS. Monica chooses her activities carefully. She exercises every day. She chooses her food carefully, following a Wahls-like diet, or what some of us call an auto-immune protocol. (AIP) Monica is also an exceptionally kind and gentle—non-inflammatory—person. (Am I implying MS is an expression of a personality defect? I hope not. I’m just observing that it’s hard to create a spark without any friction. Every life has friction. Monica seems to have a talent for not creating any friction, herself.) Monica never tries to talk me into living medication-free. I never try to talk her into taking medication. (I might have made a recommendation to take Singular, an allergy drug that has been shown in the lab to transform the brains of old rats into brains that function like young rats. But that’s for another post.)

When Monica texted to ask what our neurologist had to say about my rash, I wrote, “Z says he will support my decision even if I stop taking FDA approved drugs. But it’s such a tough call. If I’m wrong, and I get an exacerbation, I’ll blame myself. If overheating on this drug gives me an exacerbation, I will also blame myself.” I was perhaps exaggerating  (or as we as say in my family of origin, ‘over-exaggerating’) when I texted about the perils of overheating. Overheating merely creates pseudo-exacerbations, or transient worsening that last until the MS host cools off. Pseudo-exacerbations sure feel like the real thing, but they don’t bring on permanent damage (as far as we know.)  You see how Monica and I are opposites? Even after years of daily work to mellow out, I still have a tremendous talent for creating friction out of thin air.

Monica texted, “Yes, it’s a tough decision. Think we should decide not to blame ourselves either way. I will always support you, wwld* :)”

*wwld is of course short-hand for what would Lisa do? Feel free to sprinkle this liberally all over the internet, like lesions on an MS MRI.

Note that when I texted that I’d decided to drop the Tecfidera, Monica didn’t text back, “told ‘ya so,” or “welcome to revolution against rapacious Big Pharma” or anything. The Lisa she knows is a much better person than Ms. Lab Rat.

Her sweet response was not at all surprising. I didn’t expect to get any guff from Monica. The guff, when I got it, came from an entirely unexpected quarter.

 

 

 

Flummoxed (Part 2 of ?)

I find it super uncomfortable to read articles in scientific journals. Even articles about MS. Even articles about MS illustrated with lots of pretty graphs. Maybe…especially articles about MS. These are articles I have to understand as though my life depended on it. Because it does.

You know how some people publicly (and most people privately) grouse about how higher math is irrelevant for most of us after we get out of school—so why make students suffer? Well, I wish I’d paid more attention when I was taught statistics. Turns out, I need to understand them in real life. I wish I’d had a semester or so learning to become a fine print detective, that the teacher had made terms like  “de facto” feel like shiny keys to hidden treasures. I wish I’d not learned to gloss over any text in the form of an equation like this one:

IDPDrugversusPlacebo=100%(1(1IDPDrugversusIFNβ100)(1IDPIFNβversusPlacebo100)).

Because no one is going to tell me the stuff I am learning by reading research articles in Frontiers in Neurology. Stuff like: “Higher efficacy treatments exert their benefit over lower efficacy treatments only during early stages of MS, and, after age 53, the model suggests that there is no predicted benefit to receiving immunomodulatory DMTs (Disease Modifying Treatments) for the average MS patient.”

I admit, I haven’t been going to enough MS Society events. But all too many of them are paid for by pharmaceutical companies, who may have a conflict with informing you that, after you reach a certain age,  their drugs are no longer particularly useful. (Not to mention, some of their drugs are not particularly useful at any age.) I don’t know about you, but I know an awful lot of people over the age of 53 who are taking a DMT (Disease Modifying Treatment.) These treatments can cost in excess of $7k per month. Very few of these people seem particularly well. More than a few complain of side effects from their medications. What would they think about this article? Have they been enduring pills/injections/infusions that are doing them more harm than good? Have I?

I’m not going to be too hard on myself for having trouble navigating the facts as presented. At one point, I’d sent a link to my son, who majors in math and economics at Vassar. My heart leapt when he messaged me back. Then I saw he was messaging with a question, not an answer: “Does this thing have cliff notes?”

When Dr. Z returns my call, I am stuck on one particular paragraph, which distinguishes higher efficiency drugs from lower efficiency drugs. I notice the drug I’ve lost access to, Zinbryta, is classified as a higher efficiency drug. Whereas Tecfidera, the drug that is causing my skin to redden and prickle, is classified as a lower efficiency drug. I’ve downgraded! Nobody likes a downgrade. And nobody likes their skin to prickle and burn.

IMG_0124

Dr. Z tells me he’d gotten the picture my friend Monica had taken of my angry skin. I ask him if it looks like an allergic reaction. The fine print that came with the drug was very clear on one thing: “Do not use Tecfidera if you have had an allergic reaction, such as welts, hives…”

I want him to use the word, “hives.” Instead he asks, “Did you take aspirin thirty minutes before you took the medication?”

“Like you told me?”

“Yes.”

“No.” I hadn’t wanted to mask the effect of the drug. I’d wanted to know exactly what my body thought of it. The reaction had been fairly unambiguous, I thought. Didn’t he?

He says rash is a common side effect, one that would generally recede after the first few weeks, or could be averted entirely if I were to take an aspirin beforehand.

I counter that even if this was a side effect, and not an allergic reaction, I just wasn’t sure the side-effect of this drug could ever outweigh the benefits of a low-efficacy therapy.

He says, “You’re talking about that paper again. Let’s remember that you may not need a high efficacy drug at this point in your disease process. You might be past the inflammatory phase of your disease. But you are not out of the woods yet. I have patients in their seventies and eighties getting relapses. I wouldn’t want that to happen to you.”

I don’t want that to happen to me, either. I promise I would give Tecfidera another chance. I would try taking the aspirin 30 minutes before the drug, as he had told me. And wait and see.