Vaccinations for Kids With Arthritis
Kids with arthritis need vaccines, but there are a few special considerations.
By Stephanie Watson
Vaccines are critical for preventing disease — and especially so for children with conditions like arthritis. “Kids with arthritis and other chronic inflammatory diseases are potentially at higher risk for infection, and so it is particularly important that they are covered with all the national recommendations in terms of immunizations,” says Dawn Wahezi, MD, MS, interim chief of pediatric rheumatology, Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
Vaccines work by exposing the immune system to a small dose of a virus or bacteria. The immune system learns to recognize the germ and fight it off when exposed to it in the future. There have been concerns that the vaccine-triggered immune system response might cause a flare of inflammatory diseases like arthritis. But recent evidence suggests vaccines don’t trigger disease flares, and they shouldn’t be avoided for that reason.
Kids with arthritis can — and should — get all vaccines the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends for their age group, with just a few exceptions.
Live vs. Inactive Vaccines
There are two main types of vaccines — live attenuated and inactivated. Live attenuated vaccines contain a live but weakened strain of a virus or bacteria. Inactivated vaccines are made from killed viruses or bacteria, or from parts of these killed diseases.
Vaccine effectiveness relies on the recipient having a healthy immune system. Many of the drugs used to treat juvenile arthritis (JA) — biologics, corticosteroids and disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs — relieve symptoms by suppressing the immune system so it can’t attack the joints. That’s why they’re called immunosuppressant drugs.
Some experts have worried that an immune system weakened by immunosuppressant medicine may not mount the proper response to a vaccine. Another concern is that a live vaccine could potentially cause the disease it was designed to prevent. “Live vaccines use a small component of the actual microbes to make the vaccine, so there’s always the chance children could develop the disease,” says Julia G. Harris, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and pediatric rheumatologist at Children’s Mercy Kansas City. “The chance is low, and there have been more studies showing that it may be safe for kids with arthritis to get some live vaccines. But right now, based on the literature that we have, we do recommend avoiding those.”
A 2015 review of studies published in Current Rheumatology Reports found that live vaccines didn’t lead to any infections, although the authors said more research is needed to confirm that these vaccines are safe for kids with arthritis before changing the recommendations. Both the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the American College of Rheumatology recommend that people who take immune suppressing medications avoid live vaccines.
Currently, there are only three live vaccines on the childhood immunization schedule — measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), chickenpox (varicella), and nasal spray flu vaccine. It is important to note that the flu shot is inactivated and is safe and recommended for children with arthritis on immune suppressing medications.
Overall, the review concluded that inactive vaccines are safe and effective for children with arthritis. Most of the children studied didn’t have any serious side effects from vaccines. Children who were taking corticosteroids, methotrexate and biologic drugs all mounted a protective immune response against the disease. However, the response waned over time in children who were taking biologics, which may indicate the need for a booster vaccine to ensure that these kids are adequately protected.
Kids with JA need their vaccinations, but the timing might have to be shifted. “Ideally, patients should be vaccinated before starting immunosuppressant therapy to ensure that they are protected,” Dr. Wahezi says. If that’s not possible, children may need to wait until the disease is stable enough to go off medications before being vaccinated. Ask your child's doctor about the best times to vaccinate.
Children who are on immunosuppressant drugs need to get the pneumococcal polysaccharide (PPSV23) and pneumococcal 13-valent conjugate (PCV13) vaccines. These vaccines protect against pneumococcal bacteria, which cause meningitis, pneumonia, sinusitis and ear infections. Kids taking immunosuppressant medications are at greater risk for these infections, which can sometimes be serious enough to lead to hospitalization.
Many children are not getting their recommended vaccines given the coronavirus pandemic. However, an American College of Rheumatology taskforce released a guidance statement with a high level of consensus that “Children with pediatric rheumatic disease should continue routine childhood vaccinations (unless contraindicated due to DMARD therapy), including the annual influenza vaccine.”
When Certain Vaccines Are Off-Limits
Rarely will any child — even one with arthritis — need to avoid all vaccinations. Typically, they’ll just need to stay away from live vaccines if they’re on immunosuppressant drugs.
Skipping live vaccines shouldn’t prevent your child from attending school as usual. Every state provides medical exemptions for vaccinations. “Typically, we can speak with the school and provide documentation that the live vaccines are contraindicated due to their medications,” Dr. Wahezi says.
Make sure all your child’s family members and close contacts are up-to-date (including yourself) on their vaccines to lower your child’s odds of being exposed to infections.
Also, encourage your child to follow good disease prevention practices, such as regular hand washing, avoiding people who are sick and staying home from school when there is an outbreak of illness, Dr. Harris advises.
If your child does get sick, see a doctor as soon as possible. Prompt treatment — for example, with antiviral drugs for the flu or chickenpox — can prevent a minor illness from becoming serious.
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