IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Breastfeeding and the COVID-19 vaccine

After a lot of thought and consideration, I decided to hold off on getting my COVID-19 vaccines until after I delivered my son. Before we dig deeper into this topic, I want to clarify that this was solely my choice, everyone needs to do what they are most comfortable with. Since the pandemic began, unprecedented pressure and stress has been placed on pregnant and lactating women to make one decision or another. For me, as a stay-at-home mom, who continued to keep a low profile while pregnant, I felt more at ease waiting to get my vaccines until after my son was out of my body. My care team made up of a maternal fetal medicine doctor, OB, and gastroenterologist all supported my choice to wait.

My main reasoning was limiting the variables of exposure. All my kids were exposed to Humira while in utero. While there are long term studies that show the safety and efficacy of biologics in pregnancy, you never know. If down the road my son had any health complications or issues, I didn’t want to have to grapple with whether my biologic or a vaccine contributed or were to blame. As an IBD mom, we deal with enough guilt as it is.

So, I chose to wait. Anxiously. Patiently. Luckily, I delivered my third child, Connor Christopher, July 14th, and did not encounter any COVID-19 scares while pregnant. Once I was home from the hospital following my C-section, I talked with my gastroenterologist and OB about getting my first COVID vaccine and scheduled an appointment at Walgreens ASAP.

Getting the first jab

Wednesday, July 21, I finally got my first dose! A little late to the party, but I’m currently exclusively breastfeeding (and pumping), and I’m hopeful that once I’m fully vaccinated (two weeks after my second dose in August), my son will receive antibodies from the vaccine that way. It felt a bit surreal to finally be at a point where I felt comfortable with my personal choice to get the vaccine.

According to the CDC, since January 2020, there have been 34 million cases and 607,000 deaths. As of July 21st, 161.9 million people are fully vaccinated—that’s 48.8% of the total population, or 57.1% of the population older than age 12. Virus variants threaten new outbreaks among the unvaccinated.

Much like making decisions to manage IBD, it’s imperative our community looks at the benefits vs. the risks of getting the vaccine.

Words from leading medical experts in the IBD community

This past week Dr. David Rubin, MD, Professor of Medicine, University of Chicago presented, “Updates on COVID-19 for Patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease”.

“Everyone needs to be vaccinated, this includes pregnant women and new moms. The Delta Variant is VERY contagious. The data in IBD is reassuring when it comes to immune responsiveness compared to the general population, especially with the two dose mRNA vaccines. Antibodies against many things are transmitted in colostrum, and that may be the anti-SARS-CoV-2 spike antibodies too, which may provide protection to the baby. It’s definitely NOT dangerous to breastfeed after vaccination.”

Speaking of the Delta Variant, according to Dr. Rubin’s presentation as well as guidance from the CDC, “Delta was 1% of COVID-19 cases during the week of April 10th. By the week of July 3rd, Delta is estimated to account for 57% of new COVID-19 cases. Within a matter of 12 weeks of being introduced to the US population, it became the dominant variant here.

Dr. Uma Mahadevan, MD, University of California San Francisco agrees, saying given the ongoing crisis with COVID-19, all eligible people should get vaccinated.

“Breastfeeding mothers can get vaccinated per CDC guidelines and there is data that the antibody from the vaccine crosses to the infant via breastmilk, possibly providing them with protection as well! For many infants of moms with IBD, they have detectable levels of biologic agents in their blood for the first 6 months of life. Having antibody against SARS-Co-V-2 may provide them some protection against getting ill if exposed to the virus.”

Dr. Meenakshi Bewtra, MD, MPH, PhD, Penn Medicine, has IBD herself and has been a vocal advocate for our patient community since the start of the pandemic. She implores everyone to get the vaccine, immediately.

“Don’t wait. In fact, I, every doctor I know, American College of Gastroenterology, and Maternal Fetal Medicine recommend getting the COVID-19 vaccine while you are pregnant. Why? Because we’ve seen what happens to pregnant women who get COVID. There are women who got the vaccine in trials; there were women who got vaccinated while pregnant (>10,000 at this point)—we have a lot of data. The evidence is crystal clear. The same holds for getting it while breastfeeding. COVID is real, it’s out there; you can get sick and die; you can transit it to your infant or others in your house. There is absolutely no reason why anyone should not be getting vaccinated unless you know you have an allergy to something in the vaccines themselves. Your protective antibodies can pass to the infant.”

COVID-19 in the IBD Community and Vaccine Response

Thanks to the SECURE-IBD database, we have more guidance about how those of us with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis have responded and continue to respond to not only COVID, but the vaccine. People with IBD do not have an increased risk of getting it. Aminosalicylates, biologics, and immunomodulators show no increased risk of severe COVID- 19. Steroids are associated with worse outcomes. And biologic therapy is associated with decreased risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.

One of the main concerns many of us in the chronic illness community on immunosuppressive drugs have wondered about is the efficacy of the vaccines in our body. Good news—a recent study of 246 patients with IBD who received both doses of the vaccine showed similar adverse events as in the general population. Sore arm, headache, and fatigue are the most common adverse effects of the vaccine. All I had after my first Pfizer vaccine was a sore arm. More importantly, the study showed no increase in IBD flares.

The Prevent-COVID study shows even more promising data with more than 1,700 participants with IBD. Click here to see results of the study—everything from rates of vaccine side effects to lab titers three months out.

As of now, there’s no recommendation or approval regarding a booster vaccine. Pfizer announced that their clinical trial data showed that a third shot may increase antibody levels, but nothing has been published yet. Without more research, it’s unclear if an increase in antibody levels will provide greater protection from the virus than two doses.

Get Involved in COVID-19 Vaccine studies

University of Chicago Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center COVID-19 Vaccine in IBD Study

  • This study is analyzing the durability, safety, and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in patients with IBD, If you are interested in participating in the study (whether you have already been vaccinated or not) please email: covidvaccine.ibd@lists.uchicago.edu.

Prevent COVID Research Study

  • If you are 12 to 17 and have received your first COVID-19 vaccine in the last 90 days, you may be able to take part in PREVENT COVID, a research study to learn about the vaccine experiences of people with IBD. Click here to learn more.

CORALE-Vaccine IBD

  • The purpose of this research being conducted at Cedars-Sinai is to understand the effects of vaccination against COVID-19 in people with IBD. To achieve this goal, a national and local group of adults with IBD who are eligible to receive any available vaccine against COVID-19 are being recruited. Within this group we will evaluate the antibody levels of the body’s response to the vaccine. Questions about the study? Contact the CORALE-V IBD Research Team at Cedars-Sinai at ibdresearch@cshs.org or call 310-423-5643.

Washington University in St. Louis: COVID-19 Vaccine Response in Patients with Autoimmune Disease

  • School of Medicine researchers are leading a clinical trial to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in people taking immunosuppressive drugs. Such drugs are prescribed to treat autoimmune diseases, including arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and psoriasis. Researchers will enroll up to 500 adults ages 18 and older in the St. Louis region. They are recruiting health-care workers at the School of Medicine and patients seen in Washington University outpatient clinics. Eligible patients who have preregistered for the COVID-19 vaccine will be contacted to assess their interest in being recruited into the study. For information about participating in the trial, email covaripad@wustl.edu, or contact either Alia El-Qunni at 314-249-1151 or Lily McMorrow at 314-280-3894.

V-Safe

  • Use your smartphone to tell the CDC about any side effects after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The tool uses text messaging and web surveys to provide personalized health check-ins after you receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Depending on your responses, someone from the CDC may call to check on you. Participation is voluntary and you can opt out at any time. Sign up at: www.vsafe.cdc.gov.

Additional information for your consideration:

Coronavirus disease 2019 vaccine response in pregnant and lactating women: A cohort study

CDC: COVID-19 Vaccine While Pregnant or Breastfeeding

Parents Magazine: The COVID Vaccine and Breastfeeding: What Nursing Moms Need to Know

University of California San Francisco: No Sign of COVID-19 Vaccine in Breastmilk

Study Finds COVID-19 Vaccines Safe for IBD Patients

Rolling up sleeves for a hopeful future: Immunocompromised healthcare workers with IBD share their vaccine experiences

Since the start of the pandemic, healthcare workers have carried the heaviest burden. Especially those who are immunocompromised while working in harm’s way. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s you’ll hear from three healthcare workers with IBD who are immunocompromised and have received their first vaccine. It’s my hope that by hearing from these warriors firsthand that you’ll gain a sense of comfort, understanding, and perspective while also understanding the importance of debunking medical misinformation. Our IBD community is delicate and requires more expertise than simply listening to a family member or friend who “read something on the internet” or someone who has a cousin with Crohn’s (or now COVID).

Wearing several hats—IBD Mom and Relief Charge RN in COVID Unit

When Shermel Edwards-Maddox of Houston was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2007 at age 24, little did she know that she’d one day lead the charge in a medical unit in the thick of a pandemic, while having two kids and a husband at home, while being on a biologic.

“It has been both physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. I imagine that every healthcare worker has been afraid however being immunocompromised has added an extra layer of fear. The emotional and mental exhaustion comes from the constant worry of “what if today is the day I catch COVID”? Every time I step onto the nursing unit, I’m aware that I could contract the virus. It’s very reminiscent of IBD and the worry of whether a flare is starting.”

Like many other healthcare workers (and the general population for that matter!), she says the roll out of the vaccine provided her with a sense of relief, but also an understanding about the importance of educating the public about the importance of getting vaccinated. As a nurse, she has a solid understanding of how clinical trials work and knows that more than 70,000 people received the vaccine between the Pfizer and Moderna trials. She was especially excited to receive the vaccine after it was found to be 95% effective. Shermel feels blessed to receive “0.3ml of hope” in a syringe and says many in her shoes feel like they just received their “second wind” after months of being beyond exhausted.

“It was quite emotional. I shed several tears in the days leading up to the vaccine. Those tears were in amazement of how grateful I am to be getting a vaccine that could spare me from this horrible virus that takes the lives of so many. When it came time for getting the vaccine, I felt pure excitement!”

Shermel’s only side effect she experienced was a sore arm, which is expected with any type of vaccine.

The COVID vaccine allows Shermel to not only protect herself but her husband, children, patients, and the community. It makes her feel hopeful to know her daughter will get to see her kindergarten teacher’s face without a mask and that her son will be able to attend his school graduation, free of social distancing. 

From an Ostomy Reversal in March to working as a clinical researcher

Caroline Perry also happens to live in Houston and after battling Crohn’s since the age of eight in 2000, she had an elective ostomy reversal surgery March 4th just as the pandemic was unfolding in the States. She takes Entyvio AND Stelara and says that even though she’s on two biologics, her physician had explained to her that both drugs have a relatively good safety profile. While she wasn’t overly nervous about contracting the virus more than the next person, she has been nervous about how her body would react to it.

As a clinical researcher, her boss, happens to be her gastroenterologist. Having her care team readily available and working alongside people she knows and trusts on both a personal and professional level has helped her cope through the pandemic immensely.

Prior to receiving the vaccine in December (2020), Caroline admits she had some initial concerns and brought them up to her doctor, which is what she recommends everyone does.

“Many people are getting all their information from the internet or by word of mouth and are neglecting to listen to our experts—some even mistrusting them. My doctor gave me lots of evidence on why she believes the vaccine is safe and debunked a lot of my fears, which I found out were fairly common questions or misconceptions regarding the vaccine. I got the information I needed to make an informed decision, and once I had all the information, I was no longer worried about getting the vaccine! I am much more concerned about getting COVID than any potential side effect of its vaccine.”

Caroline says she was so excited to receive the vaccine, not only for herself, but for all the healthcare workers that were in the room with her.

“Sitting in that chair, it hit me. I was really experiencing a significant piece of history and I will never forget the feeling of palpable relief in that room. As healthcare workers, we have heard nothing but bad news for so long, and the vaccine is a beacon and glimmer of hope, at the end of a very long tunnel.”

Due to the pandemic, Caroline and her fiancé canceled their wedding for the time being, but finally feel like they can breathe a sigh of relief. Her fiancé won’t be eligible to receive the vaccine until the last round is available, so until then, she says they will continue to practice COVID precautions and keep up to date with the latest data surrounding the vaccine.

After receiving the vaccine, Caroline still received her Entyvio that afternoon! Her only side effect, like Shermel, a sore arm. As of now, she’s working on COVID research in addition to her usual IBD research. Caroline says this past week was her first time working in the COVID ICU for a new clinical trial, and she felt a lot safer thanks to having the first vaccine.

Juggling Women’s Health while being a mom of 3

Janice Eisleben, a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner in St. Louis, was diagnosed with Crohn’s in October 2017 while pregnant with her third child. She was initially on Humira, but started Stelara a year ago. Janice happens to work at the OB office I go to, so I know her personally and have experienced her amazing care through my own pregnancies. We connected immediately once we both discovered years ago that we were IBD moms on biologics.

She recalls how scary the onset of the pandemic was, between the limited information and the looming unknown. As a patient with IBD, on a biologic, she wasn’t sure what that ultimately meant for her well-being. When she found out the vaccine was going to start being available to healthcare workers, Janice says she was elated.

“I feel like the vaccine finally offers some level of comfort to healthcare workers who have literally been giving everything they have to take care of patients. And this is not limited to nurses and doctors! The hospital cannot run without the respiratory therapists, housekeepers, and maintenance staff—these people are truly the unsung heroes of this pandemic.”

Janice said she did not have concerns or worries about the vaccine because she had been following the clinical trials from the early stages. She says the energy she felt just standing in line to receive her vaccine was something she’ll always remember and that everyone there was beyond ready to take this next step.

“It was incredibly emotional. I honestly teared up when I received the email inviting me to schedule my appointment. I was so excited that the night before I had trouble sleeping—kind of like a kiddo who can’t sleep the night before Santa comes. This vaccine means so much for us. It means that maybe sooner than later I will feel more comfortable with my kids going back to school and participating in activities. It means that we have less worry about me bringing this virus home from work to our household, and less worry about me getting a severe case of this virus.”

She says she can completely understand why someone would be skeptical of the vaccine, but she encourages everyone to avoid the “Google trap” and to please contact your physicians/care providers to discuss it further. For anyone with IBD, Janice advises you to specifically contact your gastroenterologist. If there is anyone those of us with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis should trust, it should be our GI!

Janice’s only side effect was also a sore arm, though she does anticipate more symptoms (low grade fever, aches, fatigue) after the second dose, because this was well documented in the trials.

Helpful Resources to Educate Yourself About IBD + COVID Vaccine

About IBD: Podcast Interview with Dr. David Rubin: A Key Opinion Leader in IBD Helps Patients Understand What to Expect with Vaccination

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation: COVID-19 Vaccines: What IBD Patients & Caregivers Need to Know

The race for a cure: How clinical trials are taking on COVID-19

Clinical trials are the guiding light when it comes to discovering life-saving medical breakthroughs. Now, more than ever, they are critical for ensuring treatments and vaccines to combat COVID-19 are safe and effective. IMG-9966 Citruslabs is currently offering research organizations their patient recruitment service and software free of charge for COVID-19 trials. Their goal is to make an impact by accelerating the research needed to find a vaccine and treatment for this condition sooner rather than later.

“Without clinical trials, there is no innovation in medicine. Since there is currently no cure or vaccination for COVID-19, it is essential to test potential treatment methods as soon as possible and to speed up the process so that we can slow this virus down and all move on with our lives. We know that patient recruitment is a big issue in the clinical trial industry. We want researchers to do what they do best: conduct research, see patients, and let others, like Citruslabs, worry about patient recruitment,” said Susanne Mitschke, CEO and Co-founder, Citruslabs.

Susanne

Susanne Mitschke, CEO & Co-fonder, Citruslabs

Right now, clinical trials are looking for people infected with coronavirus, as well as healthy individuals. Healthy people are the key group needed for vaccination trials. Currently, there are around 12 different potential treatment methods being tested—finding a cure for people who are already infected with COVID-19 and finding a vaccination that prevents people from getting the virus in the first place.

As you can imagine, aside from COVID-19 trials, the clinical trial world has come to a screeching halt. Patients are scared to come to screenings or continue with their study visits because of COVID-19.

The trials to treat infected COVID-19 patients are targeting the most severe cases and mostly treat ICU patients. Citruslabs isn’t working on those trials, as it’s hard for them to identify patients who are in the ICU. Their expertise lies more so with clinical trials for vaccines.

The race to discover a safe COVID-19 vaccine

Even though clinical trials for COVID-19 are accelerated right now, to ensure a vaccine works and is safe, still takes time. This is why it’s expected a vaccine for COVID-19 won’t be approved until at least March 2021. stay-home-save-lives-4983843_1280

To give you an idea of just how accelerated the race to get a COVID-19 vaccine is, on average clinical trials for vaccines take 10 years! First, research must be done “in vitro”, then, usually the vaccine is tested on animals and the last step is human clinical trials (three phases for FDA approval). Most companies then continue with a Phase 4 trial to collect “real-world evidence” and test the drug with tens of thousands of patients.

“The good news when it comes to COVID-19 is that researchers have investigated other Coronaviruses: SARS (from 2002) and MERS (from 2012). The current Coronavirus has 80-90% similarity to the SARS virus from 2002, which is also why doctors call the virus SARS-COV-2. When it comes to COVID-19, some trials focus on live but weakened virus forms. These have drawbacks because they can still make the host (the human being) sick! Newer approaches are looking at the genetic code of the virus, which seems in light of COVID-19, a safer approach,” explained Susanne.       corona-4983590_1920

COVID-19 Symptom Tracker

Citruslabs is collaborating with other research organizations to find the right patients for clinical trials. One of those companies is Lazarus, which created a symptom tracker to identify those who are likely to have COVID-19. Their software advises patients if they should stay at home (self-monitoring), visit their primary care physician, or even go straight to the hospital. You can find a link to their tracker here.

How to get involved and help

So, what can we do as the general population right now—other than STAY HOME to minimize the spread? Taking part in clinical trials can really save lives, now more than ever. If you are interested in taking part in a clinical trial to find a vaccine for COVID-19, head over to https://bit.ly/2wMS3Ja and fill in your information. A research team will be in touch with you about suitable trials in your area.

The backstory on Citruslabs

Founded in 2015—Citruslabs is the link between patients and research organizations. Their sole focus is to find the right candidates for the right clinical trials. Currently, 86% of clinical trials don’t meet their patient targets. Citruslabs is working tirelessly to change that. When clinical trials can’t be completed it puts researchers in limbo because they are not able to collect enough data to the safety and efficacy of new treatments. As a result, many drugs never make it to market.

As of today, Citruslabs has worked with more than 200 clinical studies and reached more than 3 million patients. But their work is just getting started. Over 50% of Americans are not aware of clinical trials. CitrusLabs

“We want to change this by providing transparent information about the importance of clinical trials, their benefits, but also their risks so that individuals can make an informed decision if they want to join a clinical trial or not,” said Susanne.

In the months to come, stay tuned to Lights, Camera, Crohn’s for more information about how Citruslabs is working to drive research related to Inflammatory Bowel Disease. For now, though—the focus remains on COVID-19 and doing all they can to rise to the challenge and make a difference.

Click here to learn more about how Citruslabs is fighting the fight against COVID-19.

This article was sponsored by Citruslabs. All thoughts and opinions shared are my own.