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COVID-19 information for people with MS

Last updated: 2/04/20 (Reviewed: 2/04/20) 

 

This page contains general advice. We cannot make individual medical recommendations.
If after reading this info you have concerns, please discuss them with your medical team (neuro, GP, etc.), your state/territory MS organisation, or contact the Coronavirus Hotline: 1800 675 398. 

This page is updated as new information becomes available.  It includes advice collated from a number of reputable sources, including an independent group of neurologists from Australia and New Zealand, and another international group led by MSIF.

 

People with underlying lung and heart conditions and those aged over 60 years are more likely to experience complications and become severely ill with the COVID-19 virus. This group is likely to include many people living with MS, especially those with additional health complications, mobility issues and those taking some MS treatments.

All people with MS are advised to pay particular attention to guidelines for reducing the risk of infection with COVID-19. Older people with MS, especially those who also have lung or heart diseases should take extra care to minimise their exposure to the virus.

 

General advice & FAQs:

How can I protect myself from getting COVID-19?

The World Health Organization recommendations include:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth unless your hands are clean

  • Try to keep at least 1 metre distance between yourself and others, particularly those who are coughing and sneezing

  • When coughing and/or sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue

  • Practise food safety by using different chopping boards for raw meat and cooked foods and wash your hands between handling them.

In addition, we recommend that people with MS should:

  • Avoid public gatherings and crowds

  • Avoid using public transport where possible

  • Where possible, use alternatives to face-to-face routine medical appointments (for example, telephone appointments).

Caregivers and family members who live with, or regularly visit, a person with MS should also follow these recommendations to reduce the chance of bringing COVID-19 infection into the home.

In order to minimise the risk of being infected by COVID-19, you should follow the standard precautions  advised by the Australian Government. This is the best source of advice on how to keep yourself safe and will be updated daily. You can also stay informed by downloading the official government “Coronavirus Australia” app in the Apple App Store or Google Play, or joining their WhatsApp channel on iOS or Android.

 


What if I develop symptoms of COVID-19 infection or have a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 infection?

If you develop symptoms of COVID-19 infection or have a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 infection you should:

  • Follow the standard self-isolation advice.

  • Follow the advice of the diagnosing doctor or health care facility.

  • Seek the advice of your neurologist or ask the diagnosing health care team to discuss with them or the on-call neurologist, regarding any changes to your treatment.

  • It is extremely important that you advise your neurologist if you become infected with COVID-19 as we will be collectively monitoring the outcomes for people with MS and various therapies. This will assist in providing appropriate advice to all.
 

Who should I contact if I have symptoms of COVID-19 infection?

If you are concerned that you are developing symptoms of COVID-19 you can:

  • Phone the Coronavirus Health Information Line 1800 020 080

  • Phone the Health Direct Hotline 1800 022 222.

  • Phone your General Practitioner for an appointment (please phone ahead to make an appointment).

  • Attend a coronavirus testing centre (these are listed for each state by the relevant health department, again please phone ahead to make an appointment).

 

Should I come to my outpatient clinic, infusion or MRI appointment?

If you have visited a high-risk area, have symptoms of COVID-19 infection or have had close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 please do not attend your outpatient, infusion or MRI appointment. Please contact your specialist clinic, MRI department, infusion centre or MS Nurse to advise of your need to cancel the appointment and make alternative arrangements. Many clinics have now moved to telephone or telehealth consultations. MRI departments and imaging centres have implemented measures to limit the risk of infection.

 

Should I travel overseas?

Current travel advice is available on the Australian Smart Traveller website, but essentially all travel has now been banned.

 

Should I have the flu and pneumonia vaccinations?

It is recommended that all persons with MS and related disorders have the flu vaccination when it becomes available in April, 2020. The Pneumococcal vaccination is also recommended  for those who are eligible. Check with your GP/neurologist.

 

What if I am a healthcare worker?

As indicated above, at present we have no evidence of an increased risk of COVID-19 infection or its complications in people with MS or related conditions, or in those on treatment. However, as indicated below there are potential, theoretical risks with some medications and it would be sensible for healthcare workers on any of these therapies to avoid work environments that would bring them into direct contact with people either known to be or likely to be infected with COVID-19. If you require any documentation to this effect, please contact your neurologist who will be happy to assist.
 

Advice for children or pregnant women with MS:

At this time there is no specific advice for women with MS who are pregnant. There is general information on COVID-19 and pregnancy on the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention website.

There is no specific advice for children with MS; they should follow the advice above for people with MS.


Advice for looking after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak:

The Federal Governement's Head to Health website can help you find the right digital health resources for your needs. This includes resources on how to support children and others.: https://headtohealth.gov.au/

Beyond Blue also have a page dedicated to looking after your mental health during this time: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/looking-after-your-mental-health-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak


Advice regarding the NDIS:

NDIS and Disaster Response: https://www.ndis.gov.au/understanding/ndis-and-other-government-services/ndis-and-disaster-response

New measures are being put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is a link to the statement from the Minister: https://bit.ly/2WD8nGI


Telehealth:

The Australian Government is expanding Medicare-subsidised telehealth services for all Australians and providing extra incentives to general practitioners and other health practitioners. 

Read joint media release by Hon Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health and Professor Michael Kidd AM, Principle Medical Advisor: https://bit.ly/2QXk1bX
 
Read ABC's 30/03/20 news story explaining Telehealth: https://ab.co/3460z29
 

Medicines and Treatments:

Medicines Australia assures supply of medicines:

Medicines manufacturers are committed to ensuring supply of the medicines that Australians need when they need them.  There are adequate medicines supply in Australia to meet community needs, please do not stock pile.  Medicines Australia is assisting the Department of Health to identify any potential issues relating to supply of essential medicines and to ensure measures are in place to mitigate any shortages or impacts relating to supply concerns if they arise.  (read full statement here)
 

The Home Medicines Service:

Home Medicines Service will enable vulnerable people and people in self-isolation to order their PBS and RPBS prescriptions remotely and have their medicines home delivered at no cost to reduce their potential exposure to COVID-19.  Pharmacies will be able to offer customers free monthly delivery of under 500 grams of medication and other essential supplies using the Australia Post Express Post network, and will be able to claim the cost through a government rebate. Contact your local pharmacist and they will be able to advise you on this or visit: https://www.findapharmacy.com.au/home
 

What should I do about my medication?

If you are on a regular medication for MS or a related condition, then it is recommended that you should continue to take this medication because of the very real risk of relapse when medication is ceased.

It also recommended that:

  • People who develop symptoms of COVID-19 or test positive for the infection discuss their MS therapies with their MS care provider or another health care professional who is familiar with their care.

  • Before starting on any new DMT, people with MS discuss with their healthcare professional which therapy is the best choice for their individual disease course and disease activity in light of COVID-19 risk in the region.

  • Those who are due to start on a DMT but have not yet done so, should consider selecting a treatment that does not reduce specific immune cells (lymphocytes). Examples include: interferons, glatiramer acetate, or natalizumab. Medications that reduce lymphocytes over longer intervals include alemtuzumab, cladribine, ocrelizumab and rituximab.

With regards to specific therapies:

Self-injected therapies (glatiramer acetate [Copaxone], beta-interferon [Avonex, Betaferon, Plegridy, Rebif])

  • These medications are not immunosuppressive.

  • You should continue these medications and follow the standard advice regarding prevention of COVID-19 infection.

Intermittent immunotherapies (plasma exchange, intravenous gammaglobulin [IVIg]):

  • These therapies have a minimal impact on immune function.

  • You should continue these therapies and follow the standard advice regarding prevention of COVID-19 infection.

Regular potentially immunosuppressive MS therapies (natalizumab [Tysabri], fingolimod [Gilenya], siponimod [Mayzent], dimethyl fumarate [Tecfidera], teriflunomide [Aubagio]):

  • These therapies are mildly immunosuppressive, there is currently no evidence that they increase the risk of COVID-19 infection.

  • Because of the very real risk of relapse on discontinuing these therapies compared to the currently low risk of COVID-19 infection, the present advice is that these medications should be continued.

  • You should follow the standard advice regarding prevention of COVID-19 infection.

Immunosuppressive therapies (prednisolone, methotrexate [MTX], azathioprine [Imuran], mycophenolate mofetil [Cellcept], cyclophosphamide [Cytoxan]):

  • The level of immunosuppression with these medications is variable and depends upon the dosage and combination of treatments.

  • Because of the very real risk of relapse on discontinuing these therapies compared to the currently low risk of COVID-19 infection, the present advice is that these medications should be continued.

  • You should follow the standard advice regarding prevention of COVID-19 infection.

Pulsed immunosuppressive therapies (rituximab [Rituxan], ocrelizumab [Ocrevus], alemtuzumab [Lemtrada], cladribine [Mavenclad]):

  • These therapies are immunosuppressive to varying degrees and for variable periods of time.

  • Because of the pulsed nature of these therapies there are options to delay courses of treatment.

  • Decisions on whether or not to delay a course of these therapies should be discussed with your neurologist.

  • You should follow the standard advice regarding prevention of COVID-19 infection, in some situations, on the advice of your neurologist, it may be appropriate to take additional precautions.

 

Advice regarding aHSCT:

Autologous Haematopoietic Stem Cell Treatment (aHSCT) includes intensive chemotherapy treatment. This severely weakens the immune system for a period of time. People who have recently undergone treatment should extend the period they remain in isolation during the COVID-19 outbreak. People who are due to undergo treatment should consider postponing the procedure in consultation with their healthcare professional.

 

For Australians living with MS concerned about coronavirus, at the outset we recommend that you:

  • Discuss any particular queries or concerns with your GP or neurologist (pertaining to your situation).

  • Prior to your visit, re-read this page, as the MS-specific information may help you formulate your queries.

It is also important to regularly check the following Australian Government websites, for information about COVID-19, including protecting yourself and minimising your risk:

 

Department of Health - Coronavirus (COVID-19):

The World Health Organization website (www.who.int) has general advice for the public regarding precautions, other concerns and handy FAQs.

 

Many of Australia’s major health services offer advice for MS patients about matters such as:

  • Flu and pneumonia vaccinations

  • Attendance at outpatient clinic or infusion appointments

  • MRI and/or regular pathology services

So please visit the website of your nearest health service: https://health.govcms.gov.au/resources/apps-and-tools/healthdirect-find-a-health-service
 

Find an MS Clinic nearest you: 

MS Clinics exist across Australia to provide expertise in the diagnosis and management of multiple sclerosis and many have a range of neurological services available. Most require a referral from your GP.
The list below may help you to find the clinic nearest you. MS Australia will endeavour to keep this list up-to-date through regular reviews. Please contact us by email to info@msaustralia.org.au to alert us to any errors or updates.
 

State & Territory MS Organisations:

Given the current situation and the urgent need to reduce social contact, MS organisations around the country have needed to cancel events and activities involving large gatherings, and in some cases alter the way that support and services are provided. 

Please check with your state/territory MS organisation for advice on how this may affect you: 

 

State & Territory Departments of Health pages:

 

Other media articles/sites on COVID-19 and MS:

Some neurologists around the world with MS patients who tested positive to COVID-19 have tweeted about their experiences, and so far they seem encouraging. The tweets include two from Australian neurologist Dr. Anneke Van Der Walt.

Dr. Gavin Giovanni answers FAQs regarding COVID-19 and MS, including some examples of questions sent in from readers.

 

Watch videos:

Thursday 26 March, 2020: Shift.MS interview with Aaron Boster MD:
 
 
 
Thursday 19 March, 2020: Shift.MS interview with Professor Gavin Giovannoni:
 

 
Thursday 12 March, 2020: Shift.MS interview with Professor Gavin Giovannoni:
 

 
Thursday 19 March, 2020: Professor Gavin Giovannoni's 1-hour webinar for Multiple Sclerosis Academy on "Managing MS remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic":

Warning: Dr.G refers to the UK health system, not Australia, so he used acronyms such as DoH (Deparment of Health), NHS (National Health Service) and ABN (Association of British Neurologists), for example, that are not explained.