What the IBD Community Needs to Know about Getting an Additional Dose of the COVID-19 Vaccine

Over the weekend (Saturday, November 6) I received my third dose of the Pfizer vaccine. When I had my second vaccine on August 11, I never dreamed I would be getting another jab so soon. But here we are. In talking with several IBDologists and patients I felt the need to expound on this topic, as misinformation is driving quite a bit of confusion about what additional doses and boosters mean for the IBD community and how we can best sort through all the information being thrown our way.

What’s the difference between an additional dose (3-part vaccine series) vs. a booster?

Dr. Meenakshi Bewtra, MD, MPH, PhD, Penn Medicine, helped me better understand this by explaining, “a 3rd dose implies that you had a less-than ok response to two doses and need a “3-dose regimen” to get the same response that someone else would get with two doses.”

The 3-dose regimen caters to those who are severely immunocompromised—those on chemotherapy and organ transplant recipients.

“Most IBD patients do NOT have this problem. Some small studies have shown varying responses; the largest is PREVENT-COVID which was over 3,000 patients. The study found that those on monotherapy TNF had similar response to the COVID vaccines as the general population. It was only in the setting of combination therapy (anti-TNF plus azathioprine or methotrexate) that you had a blunted antibody response (again–this was a research study),” said Dr. Bewtra.

She went on to say she has not been recommending that all her patients get a 3rd dose—rather, reserving that for patients who are on combination therapies. At the same time, this is a very fluid discussion, and the decision needs to be made on a case-by-case basis between each patient and their physician.

A booster is if you had an adequate response to the first 2 doses and are now 6 months past your primary series and fall into the recommended categories (over 65 years old or age 50+ with high-risk medical conditions), if you are part of a younger age group with high-risk medical conditions, or for those who work in occupations that put them at high risk for COVID. Booster shots are most effective 6 months after your initial series for Pfizer and Moderna and 2+ months after J&J, although the data really supports waiting until at least 6 months for best response. Age is the biggest determinant of needing a booster, whether you have IBD or not.

Dr. Peter Higgins, MD, PhD, M.Sc., University of Michigan Health, explained this clearly on Twitter. He tweeted, “It is a catch-up dose for folks who for various reasons (anti-TNF’s, steroids, chemo) will not have a great response to two doses. To catch-up to everyone else. Then a booster dose later to keep pace.”

I’m *only* 38 years old. I’m *only* on Humira. Why am I getting a 3rd dose two months after my 2nd vaccine?

I saw my gastroenterologist for a check up last week and she ordered a SARS-Cov-Z Antibody (IgG) Spike Semi Quantitative test at Quest Labs. My results came back and from a range of 0-20, I was at 4.42. My GI was surprised my response had dwindled so quickly and recommended I receive a third dose to help mount a more robust response.

Dr. David Rubin, MD, Professor of Medicine, University of Chicago, and Chair of the National Scientific Advisory Committee of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation told me that multiple studies on antibody response in patients with IBD have shown that after two doses the titers are similar to that of the general population. So, my result, is an aberrancy compared to the data. He said getting a 3rd dose seems right for me, given my personal results.

“We have suggested the booster for everyone and think of the COVID vaccines as part of a 3-dose series. When it comes to true protection from the infection, memory B cells (cellular immunity) are more important than antibodies. There is not a commercial test for that yet, but we are studying it.”

In a recent talk Dr. Rubin gave about COVID, vaccines, and the updated recommendations for additional doses and boosters, he discussed how IBD is a condition of an abnormal immune response. Therapies to manage IBD are predominately immune-based and immune-modifying. The information shared by the CDC and FDA is not specific to IBD and is confusing (for everyone).

“CDC recommends individuals should get a third vaccine if:

  1. Previously received two doses of an mRNA vaccine
    1. Currently taking select therapies, including anti-TNF and anti-metabolites
    1. “Other biologic agents that are immunosuppressive or immunomodulatory”
    1. High dose steroids (prednisone ≥20 mg/d or equivalent for ≥2 weeks)

All other individuals are recommended to get a booster 6-8 months after second mRNA vaccination.”

But wait, what’s the recommendation on antibody tests? Are they valid?!

This is where I get confused too, folks. Prior to receiving my antibody test and following my doctor’s orders I was not aware that the FDA and CDC both strongly recommend NOT checking or acting on antibody levels, as the tests outside of research studies are unreliable and unvalidated. Antibody tests do not paint a full picture of our immune system.

“There are strong recommendations from the CDC, FDA and ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) that patients NOT check antibodies nor use them in decision making. The only time they should be used is in the setting of research studies,” said Dr. Bewtra.

The reason for this is multifold:

-Antibody tests are not validated.

-Since they are not validated, there is no comparison for values. For example, my 4.42 on one test may be completely different in a different test.

-We know that antibodies are testing only one aspect of the immune system—there is a LOT more to immunity than an antibody level.

Dr. Jami Kinnucan, MD, University of Michigan Health advises all her IBD patients to receive a third dose, or a booster vaccination based on their risk factors and immunosuppression medications.

Dr. Kinnucan says, “Overall the current recommendations are to get a dose #3 on certain immunosuppressive therapy, which is different than a true booster dose. In addition, it is hard right now to understand what the true threshold of immunity is with antibody testing so I would not put too much into antibody test results. I do not recommend that patient’s routinely have their antibody status checked (unless they are involved in current studies). I would recommend getting dose #3 or booster dose for IBD patients.”

Vaccinated diverse people presenting shoulder

During the holidays we should all continue to follow CDC recommendations when it comes to social gatherings, social distancing, wearing masks, and properly washing our hands. Everyone that you spend time with should be fully vaccinated so the only thing being spread is holiday cheer. If you plan to spend time with anyone who is not from your immediate bubble, it’s recommended they take a rapid test before coming over.

Key Reminders as We Head into the Holidays

Vaccines are not 100% protective and Dr. Bewtra says “no one is fully vaccinated.”

“No one should think that just because they’ve had two vaccines, or 3 or 4, that they are safe. Protection is a function of the community: when community levels are high, even if you just got​ your vaccine, you need to wear a mask and practice all the recommendations from the CDC.”

What are the studies saying about the IBD Community

The data from science is highly variable. Studies looking at Rheumatoid Arthritis are not translatable to IBD, even when patients are on the same drugs. We have the real-world data from IBD, and it shows that the vast majority of IBD patients respond to vaccines appropriately. So not everyone needs to rush out to get a 3rd dose.

“We are doing a lot of vaccinating “the worried well” in this country. That may be fine because we are in a rich enough place to do that over and over, but it should not infer a feeling of false protection​ and it may be unnecessary,” said Dr. Bewtra.

Closing Thoughts

On the fence about receiving a 3rd dose and/or a booster dose? Have a discussion with your physician who specializes in caring for your IBD and prescribes your medications. Much like how IBD and COVID manifest differently in each person, it’s not fair to make blanket decisions about the entire patient population.

Dr. Rubin wants to reassure those with IBD that they are not at increased risk of bad COVID outcomes (but not at decreased risk either). He says most patients with IBD on therapy beyond 5-ASA or budesonide are eligible to get a third dose now. For patients on combination therapy with anti-TNF and thiopurine, methotrexate or high dose steroids, it’s reasonable to get the third dose/booster early.

Stay tuned for the evolving research. As the months go by and more research studies are completed, we’ll have a clearer picture of how to tackle this as well as additional guidance.

Save the Date: Facebook Live Event on Global Perspectives on COVID + IBD

The South Asian IBD Alliance (SAIA) is hosting a Facebook Live event Saturday, November 20 at 10 am EST. Patients and physicians will share their perspectives on COVID from the United States, United Kingdom, and India. Doctors will explain study data on serocoversion (development of specific antibodies in blood serum as a result of infection or immunization) in IBD patients and what their thoughts are on boosters and a 3-dose regimen, along with their viewpoints on mixing and matching vaccines. Patients will share their experiences from each respective country and discuss the challenges the pandemic has caused in terms of care.

Additional Resources

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation: COVID-19 Vaccine Additional Dose Position Statement 

COVID-19 Vaccines and IBD: What patients need to know (article by Dr. David Rubin)

Third doses of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines in immunocompromised patients with inflammatory bowel disease (The Lancet)

Podcast: IBD Drive Time: Does my Patient Need A COVID-19 Vaccine Booster?

Studies about how IBD patients are responding to COVID-19 vaccines:

If you don’t do so already, be sure to follow these experts on Twitter for up to the moment information:

Dr. Bewtra: @DrsMeena

Dr. Rubin: @IBDMD

Dr. Kinnucan: @ibdgijami

Dr. Higgins: @ibddoctor

The Patient Experience: Biosimilars & What Leading GI’s Want You to Know

Biosimilars. When you hear the word how does it make you feel? Maybe a little skeptical. Maybe a little uncertain. Maybe a little leery. If so, you’re not alone. I’ve been on my current biologic more than 13 years and when I think about having to possibly make a switch in the future it makes me nervous, too. That’s why I called on IBD specialists and gurus Dr. Miguel Regueiro, Professor and Chair of the Digestive Disease and Surgery Institute at the Cleveland Clinic and Dr. Christina Ha, MD, FACG, AGAF, Cedars-Sinai to help educate the patient community and put falsehoods and myths to rest. Biosimilars are here to stay so it’s imperative we get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

What is a biosimilar?

First things first, let’s get the definition out of the way so you know what we’re working with here. Biosimilars are not the generic version of the biologics many of us are accustomed to. A biosimilar is a product, usually a medication, that is formulated in a fashion that is similar to the “reference” product, also known as the “originator” medication. Think Infliximab (Remicade) and Adalimumab (Humira).

I love the way Dr. Ha explained this, “It’s like identical twins sharing the same DNA but having different fingerprints. With biosimilars, dosing, administration, optimization, monitoring, and plan of care is the same, nothing changes except the Infliximab is now Inflixilmab-dyyb, for example.”

How You’re Told You Need to Switch

You may be wondering how this conversation and discussion even starts and how it translates over to the patient experience.

“The physician and patient are contacted by the insurance company indicating that the patient must switch to a biosimilar. This allows for some discussion between the physician and the patient. Although this should be the fashion in which it occurs, I know that this is not always the case and sometimes the notification is last minute or done in a way that leaves little time for education and discussion between the administration of the next dose of biologic and notification by the insurance,” said Dr. Regueiro.

Cost Savings and Access to Patients

I want to preface this by saying the cost savings varies from patient to patient and is largely dependent on a patient’s insurance company or health plan that covers the payment of their medication.

Dr. Regueiro says, “To provide a simple overview, each insurance company/health plan will contract with a pharmaceutical company for a certain medication. Much of this is dependent on getting the best price for the insurance company. A biosimilar is typically cheaper than the original (originator/reference) medication and the insurance company will then list the biosimilar as its preferred biologic for that condition, e.g., Inflectra or Renflexis for Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. This makes the approval of that biosimilar “easier” for the patient and therefore access better. The question of where the savings are realized is another matter. Even cheaper drugs do not translate to savings directly to the patient.”

If you’ve been on a biologic “originator” successfully and are told you suddenly must make the switch, it’s not uncommon. Dr. Regueiro says he has many patients who have found themselves in this position. His advice? Speak to your healthcare team, but also go to trusted resources for education, e.g., the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation website has some useful information for patients about biosimilars.

Addressing patient hesitancy

It’s no surprise this can be an emotional discussion. I try and envision myself being told that I had to switch after more than 13 years, and I know I would be crying because of the comfort and confidence I have had with my current therapy.

“The idea of switching to a biosimilar is fraught with concern. I typically acknowledge their concern, but then explain the data. There have been many studies that have shown that switching from a biologic to a biosimilar is well tolerated, is equally efficacious, and does not incur any different safety risk. I tell the patient that we technically cannot say that the biosimilar is the “same” as the biologic, but in essence it is. I also explain that I have had hundreds of my own patients switch and I have not seen a problem. In fact, in some patients I may get a drug level of the biologic before switching and then the same drug level of the biosimilar after switching and see no difference,” explained Dr. Regueiro.

For example, there is a blood assay for Remicade (Infliximab) that measures the Infliximab level and antibodies to Infliximab. When Dr. Regueiro has had patients switch from Remicade to a biosimilar, e.g., Renflexis or Inflectra, and then measure the same exact drug assay, the results of the Infliximab level and antibodies to Infliximab are the same. The biosimilar works in an identical fashion to the original biologic, and the blood assays show the same results. The body “cannot tell” the original biologic from the biosimilar.

Let’s read that sentence again. The body “cannot tell” the original biologic from the biosimilar.

Dr. Hasays, “The key here is to understand that you are being switched to an equivalent not inferior agent. Biosimilars are rigorously studied for safety, effectiveness, antibody formation with a lengthier, more involved FDA approval process than generics.”

Why Biosimilars are NOT generics

A generic medication has the same active ingredient as the brand name medication. An example would be the generic medication mesalamine for the brand name medication Asacol. Asacol’s “active ingredient” is mesalamine and the generic is simply formulated as mesalamine. The “packaging” of Asacol makes it Asacol, but its active ingredient is mesalamine and is identical to the generic formulation of mesalamine.

Dr. Ha explains why biosimilars are not generics.

“Generics are chemical compounds where exact replicas of the active ingredient are possible. However, biosimilars are biologic agents, complex protein structures constructed from living cells. Exact replicas aren’t possible but nearly identical structures can be manufactured – remember, these are very sensitive compounds. That’s why these medications need to be refrigerated and handled differently than a generic.”

I asked Dr. Reguiero if there’s ever a situation where he advises against a patient being switched to a biosimilar. He said generally, no.

“The only main question will be if a patient has already been on a biosimilar after the originator biologic and then needs to switch to another biosimilar. This would be a “multiple switch” rather than a single switch from the original biologic to biosimilar. Based on the limited data to date, and similarity between all of the biosimilars and original biologic, I do not even see this as a problem, but we need more research to make a final conclusion onto multiple switches.”

“Delaying treatment to stay on a version of a medication that really is not meaningfully different than the biosimilar may lead to far worse consequences than staying on schedule by switching to a biosimilar. Remember, delaying anti-TNF schedules may increase risks of antibody formation, infusion/injection reactions, and flares. I am far more concerned about staying on schedule and not missing doses than I am the biosimilar vs reference,” said Dr. Ha.

What if a biosimilar fails?

If a biosimilar fails, Dr. Regueiro looks at it the exact same way as if an original biologic fails. For example, let’s take the case of biosimilar Inflectra for Remicade.

“If a patient is started on Inflectra as their first biologic ever and it stops working, I generally check blood levels to determine if the patient has developed antibodies to Inflectra and that this is the reason for failure. If they have developed antibodies, and the Inflectra has worked well for a long time, then I would switch to another anti-TNF, but not another biosimilar to Remicade. The reason for this is that if a patient develops antibodies to the biosimilar, they will form antibodies to the original biologic or another biosimilar of that same biologic. However, I would switch this patient from Inflectra to Adalimumab (Humira) or one of the other anti-TNFs if needed. I would do the exact same thing if the first biologic I used was Remicade and it failed due to antibody formation.”

I went on to ask Dr. Regueiro when he would switch a patient to a biologic medication from a “different class.”

“Let’s take the example of Inflectra or Remicade. If a patient is started on Infectra or Remicade and they have no response from the beginning, and their drug levels of Inflectra or Remicade are good (and they have not had antibodies again) this means it should be working and it is not – this is a primary failure of that medication. In that case, not only would I not switch to another biosimilar or back to the original biologic, but I would also completely switch away from the class of anti-TNF, e.g., Humira, Cimzia, Simponi, as the patient is likely a non-responder to all anti-TNFs. In this case, I’d move onto something like Entyvio, Stelara, Xeljanz, or Zeposia (depending on whether it’s ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease).”

What’s coming down the pipeline for patients?

With all the biosimilars on the market and many more on the way—Dr. Regueiro and Dr. Ha say it’s quite likely all patients can expect to be switched off their current biologic at some point as insurance companies are able to get the biosimilar as a cheaper cost.

As far as savings programs, many of us are accustomed to with our biologics (I pay $5 a month for two injections), this would be dependent on what the company that makes the biosimilars offers and may look quite different to the originator biologic’s savings programs.  However, I would anticipate the patient would not pay more for the biosimilar.  There would either be a cost savings program with the pharmaceutical company that makes the biosimilar, or, more likely, the insurance company would keep the out of pocket cost the same for the patient.

Biosimilars are administered in an identical fashion to the originator biologic. So, you won’t be forced to go from doing a self-injection to getting an infusion. I asked Dr. Reguiero about Humira’s biosimilar in the future, and he anticipates that it will be citrate-free, just as the originator is now in the States.

Pediatrics and Biosimilars

As biosimilars come to market, the indications should be the same for the originator biologic. That is, if there is an approved indication in pediatrics for the originator biologic, the same should be true for the biosimilar. However, the FDA will make final guidance on the indications for a biosimilar and they could vary slightly on which diseases are approved and which age of patient approved.

What Patients Have to Say

Christina received a letter from her insurance company in June letting her know that Remicade was no longer approved and that she would be switching over to Inflectra in July. The insurance company reached out to her directly and had not informed her GI. She was five months pregnant and was stressed and anxious about switching medications in the middle of pregnancy.

“I have been on Remicade since September 2013 and it’s working really well for me. My GI was super supportive with my desire to stay on Remicade through pregnancy and agreed that I should not switch medications. In part of the letter for my insurance company there was an appeal process, which my GI did on my behalf. A few weeks later I got a letter in the mail from my insurance company that my appeal was denied. I contacted my G.I.’s office and she had someone in her office do a follow up appeal. The insurance company finally agreed to approve me for Remicade through my due date, October 23rd.”

Christina’s baby was born October 11th, so she’ll be making the switch this week while she’s postpartum.

Vern lives in Canada and the government there forced him to make the switch.

“The cost is partially covered by the government. I was pissed to say the least. They kept telling me it was safe, but I wanted to see evidence it was safe to switch to a biosimilar after someone had been on a biologic long term. I never got an answer. Luckily, I’m doing fine, and I have not noticed a difference.”

Lizzy highlights the emotional struggle biosimilars burden patients with.

“Even though I don’t see an uptick in symptoms and my remissions has been maintained, emotionally the switch was really difficult. My insurance forced me to switch. I was extremely sick for a long time before starting Remicade while I was hospitalized. So, I was really afraid of the switch making me sick and of course it was horrible not to have a choice in my healthcare.”

Kelly attests to the emotional struggle and disappointment. She says she spoke extensively with her GI prior to making the switch and did her on own research.

“When I received the letter from my health insurance company telling me I would be forced to switch to a biosimilar I was disappointed. I had been on Remicade for more than two years and it had only recently put me into remission. But I knew the switch was coming, having heard from many people in the IBD community that they were being forced as well. I had already done research on the data from Europe and Canada showing that biosimilars of Infliximab had the same efficacy and safety profiles as Infliximab.

She’s now had two Inflectra infusions and hasn’t noticed any difference in the way her body handles the medication. Kelly is crossing her fingers for a continued great experience and hopefully no more frustrating insurance shenanigans.

Madelynn was on Remicade prior to being switched to Inflectra. Unfortunately, her care team and her insurance failed to communicate the change to her. She shockingly discovered the switch was made after proactively reading medicine notes on the patient portal.

“I was nervous about it, and a bit upset. Who wouldn’t be after being in remission with a medicine then having it randomly changed? I ended up researching quite a bit about it, which helped calm my nerves. I also asked more questions of my medical team. I was worried about the biosimilar not working and causing a flare and of possible side effects. Keep in mind, I have Remicade induced side effects already. Could Inflectra make them worse? When a medicine keeps you in remission, that is something you want to hold onto for as long as you can. If you are taking any medicine, never be afraid to ask questions, research, and advocate for yourself. If something does not work, speak up!”

Madelynn has only received one infusion of Inflectra, but so far, she feels well and notices no changes with her IBD.

A Word from the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation

Laura Wingate, Executive Vice President of Education, Support, & Advocacy for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation encourages patients to learn as much as thy can about not just biosimilars but all treatment options available so we can be active and informed partners in making decisions with our healthcare teams.

 “If you are informed you need to switch from a biologic to a biosimilar, you might be worried and that’s normal. But remember that biosimilars are just as safe and effective as your original therapy. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your healthcare providers about the switch and why it’s happening and share any concerns you have with them. You can also contact the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation for additional information, education on biosimilars, and support.”

Helpful Resources on Biosimilars

If you have questions about biosimilars– talk to your health care team. The more education, resources, and support they can provide you with to bolster your confidence that the biosimilars are an important part of IBD treatment, the better. I know personally as someone who depends on a biologic to maintain my remission, that doing the research for this article has made me feel a lot more confident and comfortable about biosimilars and what they mean for the patient community.

There are a several great resources about biosimilars to check out:

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation: Biosimilars What You Should Know

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Biosimilar Webinar from September 2021: MyIBD Learning: Understanding biosimilars: What IBD patients and caregivers need to know

American Gastroenterological Association

FDA

Inaugural Autoimmune Summit just what the patient ordered

This post is sponsored by the Autoimmune Association. All thoughts and opinions shared are my own.

An educated patient is an empowered patient. Over the weekend the Autoimmune Association presented its Inaugural Autoimmune Summit that aimed to do just that. The virtual two-day event featured 23 educational sessions and more than 50 autoimmune experts including physicians, nurses, policy experts, and of course, patient advocates.

The Summit covered a wide variety of important topics that impact patients and caregivers who live with autoimmune conditions. I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion about fertility, family planning, and pregnancy alongside Dr. Marla Dubinsky, Chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology at Mount Sinai and Co-Director of the Susan and Leonard Feinstein Inflammatory Bowel Disease Clinical Center and Mariah Leach, a mom of three who lives with Rheumatoid Arthritis and Founder of Mamas Facing Forward. As an IBD mom of three chidren myself, I’m extremely passionate about sharing guidance and support for fellow women on this subject.

During the discussion, Dr. Dubinsky touched on many aspects of the journey to motherhood and beyond with IBD, but one comment she made resonated with me. She said the greatest gift a woman can give their child, is to stay on their medication, and allow their baby to thrive in an uninflamed environment. As someone who needed and depended on my biologic with all three of my pregnancies that comforted me greatly and really struck a chord.

Other topics of discussion during the Summit included tips and tricks for managing multiple specialists to clinical trials, health equity, advocating on Capitol Hill, and complementary medicine.

A dream come true

Lilly Stairs, Vice Chair of the Board of the Autoimmune Association and Summit Lead, lives with Crohn’s disease and arthritis. As a patient advocate, she understands the vital importance of providing those who live with chronic health conditions to share their voice and articulate their needs and struggles.

“It has been a dream of mine and the Autoimmune Association’s to plan an event that unites community members from across autoimmune conditions. Our patient odysseys share deeply rooted similarities. By coming together, we can accelerate autoimmune education, awareness, advocacy, treatment, and someday, cures.”

Goals of the Summit

The goals for the Summit were three-fold. Organizers and presenters like myself hope you walked away feeling connected to people across the patient community, while learning tangible tips for managing your autoimmune conditions. Lastly, the hope is that attendees and Summit participants feel energized and excited about what the bright future holds for those living with autoimmune diseases.

Lilly went on to say, “Events like the Autoimmune Summit are essential engagements for patients and caregivers to participate in. These events provide tools to navigate life with chronic illness and empower patients with the knowledge they need to be “CEO, secretary, and treasurer of your care” as Hetlena Johnson, Lupus Patient Advocate so eloquently stated in the Managing Multiple Autoimmune Conditions panel.”

Events like this are a reminder that we are not alone in our journeys. Even though chronic illness can be extremely isolating, events like the Autoimmune Summit offer the opportunity for connection that often feels like much needed chicken soup for the soul. The camaraderie that is possible even though Zoom has a lasting impact on helping to lift the burden and self-doubt many patients face.

From the Speakers

Tina Aswani Omprakesh participated in a panel on complementary medicine and autoimmunity. As an ostomate who juggles Crohn’s disease, Gastroparesis, and IBS, she knows firsthand how imperative it is to take on illness with multiple approaches.

“This is an important subject that’s often not discussed in the autoimmune space. The reality is that many patients are thinking about exploring it but don’t know how to navigate it in a way that can help complement their existing therapies. These conversations are essential to proliferate both credible information and sources of complementary therapies so patients can truly live their best lives possible.”

Molly Schreiber lives with Type 1 Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and POTS. During the Summit, she spoke about what it’s like to manage multiple autoimmune conditions.

“Anytime I can share my story, my hope is that attendees feel less alone in their battle with chronic illness. We may have different health conditions, but our fight is often the same—pain management, medical providers who listen, and affordable medications we can easily obtain.”

Alisha Bridges is a patient advocate who lives with Psoriasis. She participated in a breakout session geared towards dermatology. She says having the chance to speak at the Autoimmune Summit was an honor.

“I hope my story helped viewers to better understand the unique challenges of living with psoriasis as a woman of color especially in the clinical trials sphere. These conversations are imperative to elicit change for better care of patients of all backgrounds.”

Curtain Call

It’s our hope attendees discovered tips for managing autoimmune disease from patient advocates like myself who understand your reality, while also learning about the latest research and future treatments on the horizon.

Did you miss tuning into the first-ever Autoimmune Summit? No worries! All the presentations were recorded and will be shared in the weeks ahead. I’ll be sure to share the Fertility, Family Planning, and Pregnancy discussion I was a part of on my social media channels as soon as the video becomes available.

Thank you to all who tuned in, to all who participated, to the organizers, like Lilly, and the generous sponsors who made this happen. It’s amazing to see what’s possible when patients have a proverbial seat at the table alongside medical professionals and digital health companies. Our voices matter and time and time again we’re being heard loud and clear.

Follow the Autoimmune Association on social media

Instagram: @autoimmune_diseases

Twitter: @AutoimmuneAssoc

Facebook: Autoimmune Association

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Scopes, Scans, and Breastfeeding

The date for my next scheduled colonoscopy is on my calendar. Even though my scope is one month away, I’ve already started the mental prep of what’s to come. When you’ve had too many colonoscopies to count you know what to expect…which is both a blessing and a curse. This time around I’m exclusively breastfeeding my 3-month-old son. So, like any IBD mom may wonder, how does that correlate when you’re taking prep that cleans out your system and are put out for the procedure?

I checked in with Dr. Aline Charabaty, Assistant Clinical Director of the Division of Gastroenterology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and Clinical Director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center at Johns Hopkins-Sibley Memorial Hospital, as well as my own gastroenterologist (GI) so I knew what to expect and so I could pass along the information to you.

Juggling Kids and Prep

I’m already anticipating the hustle and bustle that I’ll be dealing with as I guzzle down the disgusting concoctions with my 4-year-old and 2-year-old running around as I care for our newest addition. Luckily, my mom flies in for every single colonoscopy (even before I had kids!) to offer emotional and physical support. Now, she gives me a hand with my kids, and this allows my husband, Bobby, to take me to the procedure and celebrate with me after it’s over. Highly recommend you line up childcare when prepping for a colonoscopy so you can focus on yourself and not deal with the stress of mom life on top of it.

Snuggling with my son, Reid, while I did my prep in 2019.

Dr. Charabaty understands what a challenge this can be and has fantastic advice for IBD moms on prep and procedure days:

  • Tell yourself you are doing the right thing taking care of your health, to stay well for you and for your kids.
  • Explain to the kids why mommy is a bit tired today, why she is not sharing their food and why she is going to the bathroom a lot.
  • Enlist help!! Have someone you trust, and who the kids know well, to keep them company and look after them while you are prepping the day before and on the day of the procedure. You need a responsible adult who is fully awake and alert to be with the kids and keep them safe during these days.
  • If your child is old enough to understand, have them play an active and fun role in this prep, for example reminding you to drink fluid during the day from a special cup they chose for you.
  • Hug your children often in between trips to the bathroom, to keep you going.
  • Give yourself plenty of rest after the procedure so you can be fully present to your children the next day.
  • Skip co-sleeping the first night after the procedure, as you might not wake up as usual in the night.

In the days leading up to my scope, I put myself on a self-imposed liquid diet 3-4 days ahead of time to ease the prep. It’s hard enough when I’m not trying to nourish a little person, along with myself. Anyone who has breastfed a child knows how hungry it can make you. My GI told me that despite only having liquids I would not need to supplement with formula. At the same time, she suggested I drink Ensure Clear Protein, which will not affect the prep and will help it. To combat dehydration, she reminded me to drink plenty of water up until two hours before the procedure.

“Breastfeeding women lose an average of 25 ounces of fluid a day through their milk. During the colonoscopy prep, make sure you drink plenty of fluid to keep the prep going and the milk flowing! Consider breastfeeding or pumping just before leaving for the procedure and as soon as you are recover and are awake after the procedure, to minimize discomfort of full breasts and minimize disruption in the usual breastfeeding/pumping schedule and optimize the volume of milk recovered,” explained Dr. Charabaty.

If nursing gets to be too much while I’m in the thick of my prep, I plan to tap into my freezer supply of milk so that my mom or husband can feed the baby while I’m holed up in the bathroom. By being proactive and thinking of these moments ahead of time, it’s one less thing to worry about and stress over.

Is Pump and Dumping Necessary?

Since we all know what colonoscopy prep makes us do, my initial thought was that I would need to pump and dump so my son wasn’t pooping up a storm along with me. I envisioned myself on the toilet with my pump nearby…talk about a living hell! Luckily, my GI said there’s no need to pump and dump with the prep or with the procedure since my care team uses Propofol and Dr. Charabaty agrees.

“Preps like Miralax, Golytely, Moviprep, Fleet phosphosoda, and Dulcolax, are not absorbed from the gut and do not enter the breastmilk; so, no need to pump and dump with preps, save every drop of this precious liquid! There are older recommendations to pump and dump the milk 4 hours after receiving anesthesia; however, review of the data show that most drugs used for anesthesia (midazolam, fentanyl, propofol, ketamine) do not cross into the breastmilk or if they do, the concentration for the drug in the breast milk is too low to affect the baby.”

Click here to lead the latest recommendations from the Association of Anesthetists that supports this guidance.

What about prep for MRE’s and CT scans?

“Radiological contrast agents used in CT and MRI are safe during breastfeeding, but be cautious with Technetium containing contrast that is used for nuclear medicine procedures. Some recommend pumping and dumping for 12 hours; other recommend pumping for 72 hours. Store the milk and only give it to the baby after it has been stored for 72 hours.”

The bottom line

“You can continue to breastfeed baby as usual following the colonoscopy (or endoscopy), as soon as you have recovered from anesthesia, and you are awake enough to hold the baby! Talk to the anesthesiologist before and after the procedure for advice, in case different or unusual medications were needed during the procedure. If you feel tired or sleepy, let someone else handle the feeding. Kudos for taking care of both your GI health and baby’s health!”

As an IBD mom having this intel is extremely comforting and puts my mind and heart at ease as I prepare for another colonoscopy, this time with another little one in tow.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: My Personal PIANO Study Results

As an IBD mom of three who stayed on my Humira (adalimumab) injections until late into my third trimester with all my pregnancies, I recognized the importance of contributing to ongoing research about the safety and efficacy of biologics. When I was approached to participate in the PIANO (Pregnancy Inflammatory bowel disease And Neonatal Outcomes) study for my pregnancy this past year I jumped at the opportunity. While I knew staying on my medication until 37 weeks pregnant would pass Humira through to my baby and that it is considered to be safe, I didn’t know much beyond that.

My son Connor is 8 weeks today. The day of my C-section blood samples were taken from him, me, and my umbilical cord. The purpose of the samples was to measure the concentration of the Humira at the time of delivery. The process in the hospital was simple. Detailed instructions were mailed to me at home ahead of time. When I walked into the hospital for my scheduled C-section my husband and I handed over a small box that included three vials, an ice pack, and proper packaging for the transfer from St. Louis to California to the nurse who was prepping me for surgery. Once all the samples were ready to go my husband made a quick stop at FedEx to hand over the package and voila the science of it all was on its way.

The Results

The past few weeks we’ve anxiously awaited the results. This week, we received them. I have an almost 4.5-year-old son, a 2.5-year-old daughter, and a newborn. With each pregnancy—Crohn’s-wise, the experience was flawless. I felt like a “normal” person. Foods that typically trigger me, didn’t cause any issues. If I wanted a cup of coffee, I didn’t pay the price. It felt glorious to have zero abdominal pain for all those months and know that my babies were thriving in utero. I credit my own health and deep remission and my children’s health to the fact that I chose to follow my care team’s recommendations and stay on Humira until the final weeks of my pregnancies.

When the results popped up in my email inbox, I was nursing Connor. I felt a few emotions, more than I had anticipated. I hesitated to open it. Even though I could see Reid and Sophia watching TV and know how healthy they are, it still made me feel a rush of mom guilt to know that I needed a heavy-duty medication to bring all three of my children into this world and that even though studies like PIANO have shown the safety profile, that as IBD moms we still worry and wish we didn’t need to do injections or get infusions while a life is growing inside of us.

I texted my husband Bobby while he was at work and expressed how I was feeling. His response, “It’s all good babe, I’m sure it’s emotional but kids are all healthy and in good shape so just thankful for that. You did good.” Having a supportive partner through your patient journey and especially through parenthood makes all the difference.

Here are my PIANO study findings. I stopped medication at 37 weeks, and my last injection was 16 days prior to C-Section and this blood test.

My blood—7.3 mcg/mL

Connor’s blood—6.8 mcg/mL

Cord blood—5.9 mcg/mL

When I saw the numbers, my eyes filled with tears. Even though just looking at the numbers didn’t mean a whole lot, it just showed me that my baby had medication in his system, and it made me feel sad. I knew this would be the case—but I want to be transparent that it did upset me, even though I know it was for the best and have seen how my other children have thrived despite their exposure.

I waited to share this so the PIANO study’s lead organizer, Dr. Uma Mahadevan could weigh in and provide further explanation for not only myself, but for our community. She told me that in the PIANO study,  the concentration of Humira for baby on average is 9.4 mcg/ml (range 2.5-26) and for moms 25 mcg/ml (range 0-56.4). As stated above, I was at 7.3 mcg/ml and Connor was 6.8 mcg/ml.

“Cord blood is the blood from the baby that is left in the umbilical cord and placenta after birth. It comes from the baby, so those concentrations are similar. Beginning around week 14 of pregnancy the placenta has a receptor called FcRn. This grabs antibody by the “Fc” portion and pulls it actively from mom to baby. This is most efficient in the third trimester when 80% of antibody transfer occurs. Since Humira is an antibody, it gets pulled across the placenta as well.”

Dr. Mahadevan went on to say that baby often has more drug at birth than the mom, but that was not the case for me. The PIANO study has shown several positive outcomes for IBD moms:

  • There is not an association between the amount of drug present in a baby at birth with infections.
  • Even though there was no increased risk of infection seen based on exposure to anti-TNF or on drug level at birth, in theory these babies (like Connor) are considered immunocompromised until no drug is present. For Humira that’s about 3 months, for Remicade (infliximab) that’s about six months.

“My advice to moms is that all the risks to the baby seem to come from disease flare rather than from medication. In a large French study, the risk of infection in baby was in moms who flared in the third trimester, not based on anti-TNF exposure. Risk of pre-term birth is increased with disease activity, not with anti-TNF medication. Risk of miscarriage comes with disease activity, not anti-TNF use. There is a clear and significant risk from having a flare during pregnancy. Compared to babies of IBD moms not exposed to medications, there is no evidence of increased harm to the baby (at least out to 4 years of age) from TNF exposure,” explained Dr. Mahadevan.

Hearing this was music to my ears and was extremely comforting. Point being—there’s a much greater likelihood of pregnancy complications if your IBD is not managed and if you flare than if you stay on your medication and keep your IBD controlled.

“We have completed our breastfeeding study which showed very minimal transfer (a fraction of what transfers by placental blood) and no evidence of harm to baby for breastfeeding when a mother is on anti-TNF.”

Knowing this about breastfeeding gives me great peace of mind as I continue the journey with my son, while still managing my Crohn’s by taking my Humira.

I also want to add that Dr. Mahadevan and her research team have been a huge support to me throughout the entire study. When she read a draft of this article and saw how I felt when I received the email with the blood results, she asked for recommendations about how to better deliver the findings to women. This meant a lot—I suggested sharing the range in blood concentration similar to how lab results are delivered on a patient portal and following up with an email or phone call to explain what the numbers mean further. Those touchpoints of support can make a big difference. I also shared my results over the patient portal with my GI and she called me to discuss them as well, which was helpful.

Interested in participating in the PIANO study? There’s always a need for more women to enroll! So far, 1,700 women have done so. There’s especially a need for women on newer drugs like Stelara, Entyvio, and Xeljanz. Click here to get involved.

Discovering the Root Cause: How a Patient Turned Physician Helps the IBD Community

This post is sponsored by Naturally Free from IBD—all thoughts and opinions are my own.

She’s a doctor with IBD who says her call to medicine began from her own hospital bed. Dr. Christina Campbell, DO, Certified Functional Medicine Physician, Board Certified Emergency Medicine was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease 40 years ago when she was only 12 years old. She’s utilized her own personal struggles and setbacks to guide the way she treats patients and helps others in our community. Through her own journey, she says many doctors left her feeling frightened, unmotivated, even angry. Christina learned early on about the importance of bed-side manner, compassionate care, and the gift of not only listening, but hearing what a patient is expressing. Her overarching goal—to be a physician who inspires faith, confidence, and a will to fight within her patients.

She’s dedicated her life’s work to facilitating and growing the value of a patient-physician partnership rather than what she calls a “DOCtatorship.” Christina believes that a personalized approach to health works better than recipe medicine, meaning she’s passionate about finding the root cause of disease and improving underlying health and the body’s biochemistry by intervening at the level of the root cause, through a functional medicine approach. Before we dig into the amazing work she’s doing, let’s take a walk down memory lane to see how Christina got to the point where she is today.

Christina’s Journey with Crohn’s

A diagnosis of IBD in 1983 looked a lot different than present day—and not for the better. When she was 14 years old, Christina faced a near death experience from extensive bleeding and lesions from her mouth to her anus. Her gastroenterologist said she had one of the worst cases of IBD he had ever seen and shared her case at global medical conferences and in case studies. Christina was averse to undergoing a complete colectomy and colostomy, so she underwent six months of bowel rest (nothing by mouth). She received all hydration and nutrition through an IV in her veins around her heart called a Hickman catheter. At the time, the only medications available for Crohn’s were Sulfasalazine and Prednisone. Can you imagine?! 

Since her diagnosis, Christina has been on many different medications through the years (Asacol, Delzicol, Sulfasalazine, any number of antibiotics, steroids, Toradol, Tylenol, Tylenol #3, Vicodin, Percocet, Compazine, Phenergan, Tigan, Tagamet, Pepcid, Bentyl.) When the first biologic was approved for treatment of Crohn’s (Remicade in 1998), she was in remission and graduating from medical school.

“My personal story is fraught with difficulties and each of my struggles has blessed me with a deep understanding of others and the ability to empathize and connect with patients. I have learned how to listen and really hear what they are saying. I have learned the power of creating a therapeutic partnership. My goal for each of my health participants is to match their lifespan to their health span. Quality of life alongside quantity of life is key. My personal journey has taught me that it only takes one step in a new direction to change the entire path of one’s life. It has also shown me the power of understanding your personal timeline. Looking back at our past journey helps us to understand the path that has led us to where we are,” Christina explains.

The Power of Responding to the Root Cause

Before Christina knew how to treat root cause issues and was solely utilizing conventional medicine, she says her immune system remained dysregulated. She was treating her symptoms with medications that acted like band-aides without addressing the cause.

“My functional medicine training has taught me the value of information and the concept that many with the same diagnosis may have completely different root causes. Utilizing detailed functional labs to discover altered biochemistry is an incredible tool to getting things back on track. These labs are not used in conventional medicine where the focus is on illness, not on wellness. It is a completely different perspective, which makes all the difference in helping someone find not just improved health, but optimal wellness.”

When it comes to discovering optimal wellness, Christina says this includes investigating genetics, epigenetics, metabolomics, oxidative stress, cellular energy and mitochondrial health, detoxification pathways, gut health and microbiome imbalances, inflammatory factors, and so much more.

“Once we uncover this information, we can begin to make changes personalized to your life, your body, your biochemistry, your genetics, your mind, and your spirit. Patience and grace with oneself are paramount to health as are understanding and forgiveness.”

The Transcend 3-step signature program

Christina works with IBD patients through her 3-step signature process to discover the root cause of symptoms, intervene at that level, revitalize health, and teach people how to maintain and excel for the rest of their lives. She uses natural and lifestyle interventions to create a personalized program which improves the health participant’s innate healing abilities to reverse symptoms, decrease pain, and improve all aspects of their lives.

“My Transcend program is my signature 3-step process which guides you through your precision blueprint for regenerating a healthy, joyful, vital you! This program is the culmination of 23 + years of medical expertise and 40 years’ experience as a Crohn’s disease patient. It is my passion project to help as many IBD patients as I can! I am on a mission to change the medical approach to Crohn’s and UC leading to fewer surgeries, stopping the path to health decline and disability by finding and fixing the root cause. We will Transcend IBD together living healthy vibrant lives.”

The process begins with uncovering your health history and detailing your timeline. Next, Christina works with patients to order specialized cutting-edge functional lab studies to help pinpoint where the most critical areas of intervention are needed. The third step is the Excel phase where you learn how to maintain these changes and continue to progress over time.

Connect with Christina

Facebook: Naturally Free From IBD

Instagram: @dr.christinacampbell

Educational Videos on Christina’s YouTube Channel

Website expected to go live October 2021: www.NaturallyFreeFromIBD.com

Upcoming Webinar September 1

Christina is hosting an online Zoom webinar September 1 at 7pm EST. By attending this webinar, you will learn three secrets for managing IBD and have an opportunity to ask questions. Tickets are $9.95 and limited in number. Get your ticket today!

Ready to Make a Change?

Set up an initial consultation here for men and here for women. Use coupon code Natalie20 for 20% off any time in 2021. HSA/FSA are applicable. This consultation is the first step to discovery. During this consultation you will discuss your body’s problematic areas as well as the areas where you are succeeding based on extensive intake paperwork and a 60-minute consultation. Potential interventions will be discussed, labs will be ordered, and a personalized care plan will be created.

Christina says, “I provide options for anyone who meets with me. However, I do not invite everyone into my signature 3-step Transcend program. It is important that we both feel we are a fit to work together to make this program successful. You must be ready to make the necessary changes and be open to new information. You must focus on progress and commit to never letting your self-doubt stop you from having what you want. There is hope! You can change your health and life for the better.”

“My dad and husband are both GI’s and I have Crohn’s disease”

Imagine having a dad who’s a gastroenterologist and a husband who is a GI fellow… and having Crohn’s disease. For 32-year-old, Lauren Gregory, that’s her reality. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2008. Lauren is also a doctor herself and an IBD mom! When she’s not taking care of pediatric patients in the hospital, she’s enjoying time at home with her husband, Martin, and 6-month-old son, Connor. In light of Father’s Day, this week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, we share about how the most important men in Lauren’s life have helped her cope and overcome challenges IBD has presented along the way.

Through the eyes of Lauren’s dad

Late one night during Lauren’s college sophomore Christmas vacation from college, her mom called her dad with words he will never forget. She said, “Lauren is having terrible abdominal pain and is on the floor.” After a quick exam and seeing how tender and distended her abdomen were, he knew it was time to head to the closest emergency room. A CT scan showed massive gastric dilation and small bowel thickening. The surgeon was called, and he agreed it was likely Crohn’s.

Lauren was discharged home on a liquid diet with outpatient GI follow up after New Year’s. Unfortunately, her concerning symptoms persisted and her dad called a friend who was a gastroenterologist. He directly admitted her.

“When Lauren was admitted to Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis while in college at Wash U, her then boyfriend (now husband) sat by her bedside for days as she underwent scopes and a small bowel series. We knew he was a keeper then. As parents we always worry about our children. As a gastroenterologist, we may worry more when our children have GI issues. We are fortunate to have connections in GI which allowed Lauren to have prompt evaluation and ultimately a great outcome,” said Dr. Bruce Waldholtz.

Navigating love and IBD

Lauren met Martin in college. At the time, he knew he wanted to be a doctor, but he did not know what he wanted to specialize in. During internal medicine residency, Martin was torn between cardiology and gastroenterology. He ended up choosing GI and is about to start a one-year fellowship to get extra training in IBD and nutrition. (Small World Fun Fact: He is part of the same GI practice I go to in St. Louis!)

Martin says Lauren inspired him to choose gastroenterology and specifically focus on inflammatory bowel disease.

“Watching her go through what she did at such an important time in her life was inspiring. I was so grateful to her doctors taking such good care of her. I wanted to be like them.  I wanted to help people like her succeed in living a rich, enjoyable, and rewarding life. “

Lauren feels incredibly lucky to have found someone as supportive as her husband. A month after they started dating, she was hospitalized with a partial small bowel obstruction. The fact he didn’t leave her side throughout that vulnerable and scary experience meant a lot to her.

When Lauren was hospitalized for one week during her fourth year of medical school, Martin was going through his second year of internal medicine residency. They were married, but in a long-distance relationship at the time.

“During residency you can’t just take days off, and it is challenging to find coverage. Because of this I did not expect him to be able to visit, but he somehow did. This flare occurred as I was transitioning from Humira to Stelara. I have been extremely fortunate to have stayed in remission since then (2017).

How personal life impacts professional life

“Without question Lauren makes me a better doctor, especially with taking care of IBD patients. I can understand the anxiety behind the questions they have about medications and what to expect because we went through the same thing as a family,” said Martin.

Lauren says her IBD has given her a unique outlook in how she cares for patients as well.

“My experiences with Crohn’s have made me more empathetic towards my patients, and now that I am a mom, I have much for empathy for my patients’ parents. Spending extra time with patients is not always easy given that I work mostly in the emergency room, but I make a point to take the time to listen to my patients and their parents’ concerns and provide reassurance when appropriate. In my marriage, my husband answers my medical questions and has a realistic perspective of what patients go through.”

Gratitude for her dad and husband

“I realize how fortunate I am to have a father (and now a husband too) who is a gastroenterologist who can answer my questions and to help me navigate our healthcare system, especially insurance! When my gastroenterologist decided I needed to start a biologic, and recommended Remicade, my dad pushed for Humira so that I wouldn’t have to worry about scheduling infusions around my college class schedule or worrying about transportation when I didn’t have a car. At the time I had no understanding of how having a chronic disease would affect my life.”

How a physician with Crohn’s in Ethiopia is helping others with IBD cope

She’s a physician in Ethiopia looking to pave the way for those with IBD. She understands the need because she was diagnosed with Crohn’s in August 2016 at age 22 while she was a fourth-year medical student. After suffering from debilitating symptoms for eight months, she finally received a diagnosis. Dr. Fasika Shimeles Teferra says in her home country and in developing countries, she had always been taught that inflammatory bowel disease was non-existent. She felt isolated and alone as she embarked on her journey with chronic illness. There were no resources. No support. She had no clue where to turn when it came to being understood and knowing how to navigate nutrition.

In her school of medicine, an IBD diagnosis was morbid. She was told if she continued to learn about her illness, she’d die from the stress.

“Despite my medical background, I expected death to be imminent. The breaking point which later turned out to be a turning point for me, was when I was suffering from ovarian cyst torsion, explained Dr. Teferra. “Even though I was in remission at the time, every OBGYN who saw me in the ER refused to operate on me. One doctor refused to operate on me because I’m a “complicated patient with IBD”. He wanted to wait to see if pain meds will help solve it.”

Luckily, one doctor decided to operate on her, but unfortunately, she lost her left fallopian tube and ovary in the process. At age 23, she lost half her chance of being able to conceive a child. Her Crohn’s relapsed a few weeks later and depression set in. (Note: Luckily, she is due with her first child in June!)

“I went to my doctor and told him I was quitting med school (I was 5th year at the time and just starting my medical internship). But what he said changed me forever and made me feel less alone. He told me he was treating multiple IBD cases and that my disease was much more common in Ethiopia than most thought. He also told me Crohn’s was manageable with medication.”

Holding onto new hope

With a renewed sense of hope, Dr. Teferra started advocating for herself and looking for local support groups to connect with others who lived with IBD. The problem—she couldn’t find any! She joined a Facebook group based in the United States and recognized the need for support in Ethiopia.

“I reached out to a couple of gastroenterologists here in Addis and told them I wanted to start a support group in Amharic focusing on sharing experiences, supporting one another. My hope was to help others who were struggling with coping with their diagnosis. I thought sharing my story would make a difference in someone’s life.”

Launching Crohn’s and Colitis Ethiopia to make a difference

After speaking with multiple doctors, Dr. Teferra decided to start an organization that would not only focus on support groups, but also advocacy work for policy makers. The last published data on IBD in Ethiopia dates back to 1990s! She recognized this lapse in research led to major gaps in treatment for IBD patients. This inspired her to launch Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia in January 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, it put everything on hold as the world stood at a standstill.

Even though the organization exists, Dr. Teferra is struggling to garner participation in support groups, because sadly the stigma of IBD leaves many in Ethiopia to suffer in silence and shame. She says fellow IBD patients prefer to communicate directly with her, so she has taken it upon herself to meet them and their families to better explain their condition and how to live a full life with it.

“I try and explain to the patient and their family how they can best take care of themselves and how family members can offer compassionate and empathetic support along the way,” said Dr. Teferra. “Many people discontinue their medication the moment they experience a side effect. I’m also passionate about discussing family planning and breastfeeding. Because of my medical background, I am able to give reliable information about IBD and I am able to use my story to guide the narrative.”

Dr. Teferra also has a registered dietitian who serves as a board member for Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia. The nutritionist can provide guidance about how to enjoy Ethiopian cuisine and manage diet in the context of cultural foods.

But Dr. Teferra is only one person and can’t address the growing need for support and care. Even though local gastroenterologists have her contact information, and she tries to meet with as many people as possible, as you can imagine, it gets to be a lot.

Bringing IBD to Prime Time in Ethiopia

During an interview about COVID-19 on national television in Ethiopia, Dr. Teferra took it upon herself to also speak about IBD.

“Since it was Primetime, I was able to reach multiple people at once and I was able to send out the message that those with IBD are not alone. I plan to use such platforms to continue to share facts about IBD and that it does exist in Addis. In the meantime, I am working hard to find a researcher who can work on this with us. We cannot challenge policy makers without evidence, and we cannot change the minds of the medical community without research.”

Dr. Teferra says gastroenterologists in Ethiopia can testify that IBD cases are increasing daily. There is lack of medicine, lack of education, and lack of understanding. Many patients struggle to afford medication and choose to discontinue it because of lack of availability.

Overall, Dr. Teferra main mission with Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia is to improve the quality of life and health literacy of people living with IBD in Ethiopia and provide the patient community with a better understanding of their condition by empowering them to take charge of their own health.

Connect with Dr. Fasika Shimeles Teferra on Twitter: @DrFasika.

Email: fasikateferramd@gmail.com

Participating in PIANO: Why I choose to be a part of research while pregnant and beyond

As an IBD mom I see it as a responsibility and an opportunity to participate in research studies while I am pregnant and as my children grow. I’m currently 20 weeks pregnant (tomorrow!) with my third baby and this time around I’m enrolled in the Pregnancy in Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Neonatal Outcomes (PIANO) study. The project was conceived, lead, and executed by Dr. Uma Mahadevan, Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco in 2007.

Since the project launched, more than 1,800 women have participated in the registry. Of that number, over 900 stayed on biologics throughout their pregnancies. I’m thrilled to be a part of this initiative. If my pregnancies and children can provide clarity for a future generation of IBD moms, the extra effort on my part is more than worth it. Thanks to women before me who have been on a biologic and been a part of research while pregnant, I have peace of mind knowing that staying on my Humira is best for me and for baby.

Without studies that indicate how babies in utero respond to medication exposures we would be in the dark about what is best for mom and baby not only during pregnancy, but with breastfeeding.

“There is so much misinformation about pregnancy and IBD including being told not to conceive at all or to stop medication. This is incorrect and dangerous. PIANO was started to provide reliable data for women with IBD considering pregnancy so they and their providers can make an informed choice for themselves and their babies,” said Dr. Mahadevan. “Every pregnant woman with IBD has benefited from the generosity of PIANO moms who contributed their outcomes, good or bad, to the pool of knowledge we have. Every PIANO mom who contributes benefits not herself, but future mothers with IBD. It is an invaluable and precious gift.”

What PIANO measures

There are four main areas the PIANO study looks at:

  1. Whether the level of biologic drug transferred across the placenta to the infant by the time of birth predicts the risk of infection or other adverse outcomes
  2. Whether the achievement of developmental milestones is affected by medication exposure
  3. Whether the rates of birth defects, adverse pregnancy outcomes and complications of labor and delivery are affected by IBD medications
  4. Whether second trimester drug levels can be used to adjust drug and minimize transfer across the placenta to the baby

Since I am just now reaching the halfway point of my pregnancy, I have only had to fill out questionnaires. You are required to do so during each trimester, at the end of your pregnancy, and then at 4, 9, and 12 months post-delivery. Along with that, you can provide follow up until your child is 18, once a year. During this trimester I will also provide blood work and a fecal calprotectin. On delivery day, bloodwork will be taken from me, my baby, and my umbilical cord. Depending on my son’s blood work at delivery, I may be asked for more when he’s 3 and 6 months. If at any time I am not comfortable with him getting his blood drawn, I can always opt out. The cord blood is similar to the baby blood at birth so that is adequate. I can also choose to stop the annual questionnaire at any time.

If a woman receives the COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy, the PIANO study is also measuring the antibody levels found in the cord blood (on the day of birth) to confirm that the benefit transfers to the baby. Breastmilk will also be measured for the transfer of protective antibody against COVID.

The Findings Thus Far

In a presentation this past fall, Dr. Mahadevan shared findings from PIANO.

“We looked at pregnancy, birth and developmental outcomes in the infants at one year, based on exposure to drug, and found no increase in negative outcomes and no reduction in developmental milestones. Biologic‑exposed infants did have some statistically increased improvement in developmental milestones compared to the unexposed group. Overall, what this study suggests is that women with inflammatory bowel disease should continue their biologics and thiopurines throughout pregnancy to maintain remission, given no evidence of harm, and evidence that  disease activity can increase miscarriage.”

The study also found that disease activity can increase preterm labor and birth, all the more reason for women to stay on their medication and not try and go med-free while pregnant.

Looking to the Future

Currently, there is no end date for the study. As long as there is funding, the project will continue. Dr. Mahadevan says with all the new medications coming down the pipeline there is a need for safety data. She says, “The infrastructure of PIANO allows us to study new medications as they come to market, even before they are approved for IBD.”

To participate in the study women must have IBD and live in the United States. Interested in learning more or getting enrolled? Email PIANO@ucsf.edu or call 415-885-3734.

Why this public bathroom triggers me: Tactics for coping with the mental health aspect of IBD

I paid for my groceries and casually pushed my cart full of food through the automatic door when I saw it. The bathroom where I experienced one of my scariest and most painful moments. The bathroom I had to run into after pulling over on my way home from work because I was in such debilitating pain, I couldn’t handle sitting upright in my car to make it the extra five minutes home. The bathroom where I lost all feeling in my arms and legs and where my fingers locked into painful contortions. I couldn’t even hold my phone to call my boyfriend (now husband) to tell him we needed to go to the hospital. The bathroom where I unknowingly happened to call my mom after accidentally hitting “Recent Calls” with my elbow. All she heard on the other line when she answered was me screaming. She didn’t know if I was getting raped, she didn’t know what the hell was going on and she was in a different state. God was watching out for me because she was able to call Bobby and let him know I needed help and I needed help fast.

He rushed to the grocery store and whisked me out of the bathroom and straight to the hospital where I found out I had a bowel obstruction.

I’ve been going to this same grocery store for nearly seven years. It’s been nearly six years since that dramatic experience occurred. But even now, five years into remission, I always go out the other doors because seeing that bathroom is a trigger. A trigger to one of my lowest points in my patient journey with Crohn’s disease. A trigger that caused my IBD to act up right in that moment this past week.

I was forced to go out of the grocery store that way as part of COVID-19 safety procedures to keep all incoming traffic through one set of doors and all outgoing traffic to another.

Coping with psychological triggers

When those of us in the IBD community hear the word “trigger”, food usually comes to mind. We casually say “oh that’s a trigger food for me”, but we often don’t pay much attention to the physical triggers in our lives that can exacerbate our symptoms—such as locations like that grocery store bathroom, relationships with certain friends and family members, the pressure of being enough and doing enough in comparison to our peers, the list goes on.

I interviewed Dr. Tiffany Taft, PsyD, MIS, a Research Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and a fellow IBD warrior to get some clarity on this subject and to learn more about what steps we can make right now to protect our mental health and prepare for the unknown.

NH: As chronic illness patients–how can we best navigate triggers that instigate a stress response? (Other than avoidance)

Dr. Taft: “While avoidance feels like the safest option when it comes to situations that trigger our stress response, it simply kicks the can down the road in terms of the effects these situations have on our bodies. People living with chronic illness may collect multiple situations that trigger the stress response – doctor’s offices, hospitals, certain tests or treatments, making avoidance very risky if it means not managing the illness and staying healthy.

Try the “Exposure Hierarchy” exercise: Dr. Taft recommends making a list of activities or situations that are stressful, ranking them from the least stressful to the most stressful and picking 10 things. Rate those 10 things from 10 to 100 (100 being the worst). After making the list, she has patients start with number 10 and practice that task several times over the course of a week.

Before that, though, she teaches relaxation strategies such as deep breathing and grounding to help when the anxiety goes up. She says, “With repeated exposures to the feared situations and working through the anxiety, each time we do activity 10 again, it will feel easier and confidence grows. Once the patient is ready, they repeat with 20, 30, etc. until we get to the dreaded 100 which will actually feel less scary because of all the other work we did before.”

**NOTE** If you feel you have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which include vivid nightmares, flashbacks, and feeling on high alert most of the time, you should seek treatment with a trauma therapist. The good news is research on treatments for PTSD show they are just as effective when delivered via tele-medicine.

NH: Can you explain (in layman’s terms) what goes on when we’re “triggered”?

Dr. Taft: “Triggered is setting off our body’s fight-flight-freeze response, and results in a cascade of physical sensations and emotions. The most common ones are muscle tension, sweating, shallow breathing, and heart racing. Unfortunately, this response can also trigger our guts to start acting up because of the brain-gut connection. It’s a completely normal process but when you have IBD it can trigger symptoms. Your thoughts may be all over the place and littered with “what if’s” and “I can’ts”. Your mind may revisit the worst aspects of past experiences or come up with even more catastrophic possibilities in the future.”

NH: As people with IBD–I know many of us are nervous about flaring and needing to be hospitalized all alone during this pandemic, while being at greater risk for getting COVID. Do you have any advice on how to cope/mentally deal with that worry/concern?

Dr. Taft: “Facing a flare and hospitalization was stressful in the “before times” so facing this during COVID19 is an extra level of stress. While we have video chat, it does not replace the comfort of physical closeness and touch we would get from supports who could be in the hospital with us. The good news is hospitals have figured out COVID quite well and the odds of contracting it while hospitalized for IBD are lower than they were at the start of the pandemic.”

If you’re facing hospitalization, think about your resilience in these circumstances. There were probably times you felt like you couldn’t handle it, or it was never going to end or get better, but here you are today reading these words. You made it through. It may not have been pretty, it was probably incredibly hard. Anxiety has a great ability to negate our memories of how much we’ve navigated in the past.

Feeling anxious? Do this: Write down the ways you coped before, what worked and what maybe didn’t. Evaluate your thoughts about being hospitalized. Are they accurate? Are they helpful? What are some alternatives that could help you feel less anxious? If that doesn’t work, sit with the anxiety, and try some deep breathing to calm your nervous system. The sensations will likely pass and then you can retry evaluating your thinking when you aren’t feeling so keyed up.

NH: What advice do you have for people during these already complicated and challenging times when it comes to managing mental health?

Dr. Taft: “This is truly a unique time in that we are all in this COVID19 boat together. We all came into the pandemic with our own life challenges, and those probably haven’t gone away and even may have been made worse. We’re coping with a lot of information, new rules every other day, grim statistics, and people bickering over who’s right or wrong. I’ve told every patient I see to turn off the news. Get out of the comments on social media when people are arguing the same points over and over.”

Steps you can take in your day-to-day: Dr. Taft advises not to spend more than 15 minutes a day on the news, so you can stay informed but not get into the weeds. Take social media breaks, especially if your feed is full of the same tired arguments. Focus your attention on meaningful activities that align with your values. Those are what will bring you some stress relief. And those are unique to you, so no list on the internet of how to cope with COVID is going to solve everything. Sometimes these lists make us feel worse because we’re not doing most of the recommendations. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend or a beloved family member. Nobody has it figured out right now even though some people like to say they do.