Patient faces difficult choice between vaccine and MS medication

As part of national MS Awareness Month and before the Stratford-Perth virtual MS Walk on May 30, Stratford resident Lindsey Martchenko is shedding some light on living with MS during a global pandemic.

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As many area residents receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Stratford’s Lindsey Martchenko must make a difficult choice between getting her next round of the medication that keeps her worst multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms at bay and receiving a second dose of a vaccine to protect her from the virus.

Martchenko, who also serves as the local ambassador for the MS Society of Canada’s annual MS Walk, is being treated for the potentially debilitating disease of the central nervous system every six months with a medication called Ocrevus.

“The great thing is that it works really well for me, keeping my symptoms at bay, but it’s just about the worst thing I could be on during a pandemic,” she said.

In a person with MS, the immune system attacks the protective layer that covers nerve fibres, causing communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body, and can eventually lead to permanent damage or deterioration of the nerves.

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Ocrevus works to suppress a patient’s immune system to prevent common symptoms such as numbness and weakness in one or more limbs, electric-shock sensations with certain neck movements, tremors, lack of co-ordination, vision issues and dizziness.

“But that means I also have a harder time building up antibodies,” Martchenko said.

According to Martchenko, recent studies have shown Ocrevus and similar drugs can actually hinder the build-up of COVID-19 antibodies from that first dose of a vaccine, rendering it more or less ineffective without a second dose.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in the U.S., patients being treated with Ocrevus should consider getting vaccinated 12 weeks or more after their last dose of the MS drug and, when possible, should resume their MS treatment four weeks or more after being fully vaccinated.

For Martchenko, that means trading one risk for another – either taking a chance on becoming seriously ill with an upper-respiratory infection if she contracts COVID-19 after having received only one dose of the vaccine or waiting weeks, if not months, for her next MS treatment so she can be fully vaccinated.

“So myself and nine other people are getting tested (for COVID-19 antibodies), and then (a team of doctors) is going to use those results to fight with public health to get us our second dose because, at this point, we can’t get our second dose until the rest of the population. We’re not an exception,” Martchenko said.

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Even if she delays her next Ocrevus treatment, there’s no guarantee her doctors will get her that second dose sooner, which could mean Martchenko won’t be fully vaccinated until July or August.

“Basically I’ve been told that if I get COVID, I will be hospitalized.  … I’m due to get my next Ocrevus treatment in a week and a half, and there’s no way … I’ll be able to get my second COVID-19 vaccine before I go,” Martchenko said.  “So … do I push off my treatment to potentially get the vaccine and run the risk of those MS symptoms coming back?”

But even as she debates this potentially life-altering decision, Martchenko is still doing her part to raise awareness of MS, especially around the pandemic’s impact on MS patients, while encouraging others to join her in this year’s virtual Stratford-Perth MS Walk to raise money for research.

“It’s not just about the fundraising; it’s about the awareness piece as well,” she said, noting May is national MS Awareness Month in Canada.

This year’s May 30 walk will once again be virtual, so individuals and teams are being encouraged to register as early as possible to begin raising money in support of locals like Martchenko.

To register or for more information, participants can visit https://bit.ly/3vyc2Ul.

Martchenko and her daughter Izzy are also raising money as part of this year’s MS Walk. To contribute to either of their personal campaigns, supporters can visit https://bit.ly/3aU1nMa or https://bit.ly/3aTAAQ3 respectively.

In addition, Martchenko has partnered with local businesses to sell keychains, cookie boxes, sweets and other items, as well as restaurants who are running promotions with a portion of their proceeds being donated to her walk campaign. The details can be found on her personal Facebook page.

gsimmons@postmedia.com

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