MAUI, HAWAII (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) The herpes zoster vaccine is particularly important in patients with rheumatic diseases because their risks of shingles and postherpetic neuralgia are substantially higher than in the general population, Dr. John J. Cush observed at the 2016 Rheumatology Winter Clinical Symposium.

This is a live attenuated virus vaccine, and the rules regarding its use in patients with rheumatic diseases are fairly complicated. Here’s what physicians need to know: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices say the shingles vaccine can safely be given to patients on prednisone at less than 20 mg/day, azathioprine at up to 3 mg/kg/day, or methotrexate at up to 0.4 mg/kg/week, which works out to about 25 mg/week in anyone weighing more than 136 pounds.

However, the shingles vaccine is contraindicated in patients on recombinant biologic agents, including tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors, abatacept (Orencia), rituximab (Rituxan), or Janus kinase inhibitors, explained Dr. Cush, professor of medicine and rheumatology at Baylor University, Dallas, and director of clinical rheumatology at the Baylor Research Institute.

The lifetime risk of shingles in the general population is roughly one in three. The risk in patients with rheumatoid arthritis is roughly twice that of the age-matched general population, and the risks are substantially greater than that in individuals with other rheumatic diseases, including lupus and granulomatosis with polyangiitis.

Payers cover the vaccine in patients age 60 or older. The vaccine is approved for and has been shown to be effective in 50- to 59-year-olds as well, but that typically entails an out-of-pocket expense of around $200.

Given that close to 60% of all rheumatoid arthritis patients will eventually be placed on biologic therapy, Dr. Cush believes in seizing any opportunity to give the shingles vaccine in age-appropriate patients beforehand. However, he advises against temporarily stopping a biologic for the express purpose of administering the live virus vaccine.

“Find the opportunity: between changes in medication, after they have surgery, during a lapse in therapy,” he suggested.

It’s recommended that Zostavax be deferred until after a patient has been off biologic therapy or high-dose steroids for at least 4 weeks, and that a biologic agent shouldn’t be started for 2-4 weeks after vaccination.

The shingles vaccine can safely be given with multiple inactivated virus vaccines such as an influenza vaccine or pneumococcal vaccine on a single day.

Controversy surrounds the issue of whether TNF inhibitors increase the risk of shingles. Several retrospective studies have reported they do. But the largest retrospective study, involving more than 33,000 new users of anti-TNF agents, found that patients with rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and other inflammatory diseases who initiated anti-TNF therapy weren’t at any higher risk of herpes zoster than those who started on methotrexate or other nonbiologic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs ( JAMA. 2013 Mar 6;309[9]:887-95 ). The lead investigator in this study, Dr. Kevin L. Winthrop of Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, is currently conducting a prospective study in an effort to confirm these findings.

The recommendation against giving the zoster vaccine to patients while on biologics is based upon the theoretical risk that exposure to the live attenuated virus will trigger an acute shingles attack. However, when Dr. Cush conducted a survey of his fellow rheumatologists, they reported that among more than a collective 200 patients inadvertently given the vaccine while on biologic therapy, not one case of shingles subsequently occurred over the short term.

More persuasively, Dr. Jeffrey R. Curtis of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and coinvestigators conducted a formal retrospective study of close to a half-million Medicare patients and found there were no cases of herpes zoster or varicella within 42 days following inadvertent vaccination of 633 patients while on biologics. During a median 2-year follow-up of Medicare patients with rheumatoid arthritis and other immune-mediated diseases, herpes zoster vaccination was associated with a 39% reduction in the risk of shingles ( JAMA. 2012 Jul 4;308[1]:43-9 ).

“You shouldn’t be vaccinating for herpes zoster while patients are on a biologic, but you know what? If it happens, don’t wig out. Move on and try to avoid it,” Dr. Cush advised.

In any event, this is an issue that is eventually likely to go away. An inactivated virus vaccine for the prevention of shingles is now in clinical trials. It appears to be more effective than the current vaccine, according to the rheumatologist.

He reported having no financial interests relevant to his presentation.