The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging the mental health of many Canadians, who are feeling anxious and isolated because of disrupted routines and reduced connections with family and friends. These unprecedented stresses can be amplified for Canadians with chronic health conditions, including individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS).
“Coping with a crisis of this nature can be harder for people with MS, especially if they are living with disabilities, because their lives can already be limited, their worlds already smaller,” says Dr. Virginia Devonshire, an associate professor and neurologist at the UBC MS Clinic in Vancouver. “And suddenly, access to health-care providers and other support networks is not the same.”
The initial period after the B.C. government announced the closure of many medical facilities, including her MS clinic, was “incredibly challenging,” says Dr. Devonshire. “Our patients were scared, like everyone. We were inundated with calls and emails from patients worried about their health risks and whether caregivers could still come to their homes.”
With the support of the province, processes were set up to allow physicians and other health-care providers to connect with patients by phone or video links. In addition, if in-office visits are needed, protective procedures are set up. ”This is happening across Canada; everyone is still interacting with their MS patients, and that is great,” she says.
Connecting with knowledge
“Early on, we recognized the need to get information to MS patients and to neurologists and other health-care professionals treating and supporting them,” Dr. Devonshire says.
Dr. Devonshire is president of the Canadian Network of Multiple Sclerosis Clinics, and she and her colleagues across Canada pooled their knowledge and collaborated on developing messaging on COVID-19 and multiple sclerosis. The MS Society of Canada agreed to post the guidance on their website (mssociety.ca/resources/what-you-need-to-know-about-coronavirus).
One of the challenges is that the coronavirus is so new that data is often scarce. However, as more countries move through the pandemic, scientific knowledge is expanding, and Canadian neurologists and their patients are benefiting.
In Europe, where the virus hit before it emerged in North America, neurologists initially suggested that MS patients might need to stop taking certain medications that suppressed their immune systems because of concerns it could make them more vulnerable to infection.
“In some countries that issued this guidance, they found relapses increased among people with MS,” says Dr. Devonshire. ”Those European countries have since changed their guidelines, and we can now reassure the MS community that, in most cases, taking immunosuppressive drugs is safe.”
The guidance from the Canadian network stresses that patients should not stop taking their medications without consulting their neurologist and that most individuals with MS are not at increased risk. “MS is an autoimmune disease, which means your immune system is strong; people with MS typically get fewer viral infections,” she says.
Dr. Virginia Devonshire
Associate Professor and neurologist, UBC MS Clinic
Connecting with community
Finding ways to connect with caregivers during the pandemic is one area of focus for individuals with MS; another is sustaining connections with vital social networks.
Elisabeth Léger acknowledges it is hard not being able to meet in-person with friends in her MS peer community. Léger, 29, was diagnosed with MS in 2017, and since that time has developed close relationships with four other people in her age group who also have MS.
“Before the pandemic, we got together a lot because the five of us are working on a project to develop a web show,” she says. “It’s not quite the same, but now we stay connected as much as we can, including through video chats.”
Léger says she is coping well during the pandemic. Since her diagnosis, she has been determined to connect with the reality of her MS and take control of her health – which is serving her well during this time. Because she’s healthy, she has no current need to see her neurologist; however, she is connecting by phone with her obstetrician, as she is expecting her first child this summer.
“Maintaining connections with my true friends is such a positive part of my life these days,” she says. “I am so grateful to have a community of people who can talk to each other about MS and everything in our lives that we are stressed about. I also value the resources I access through my Aby app, including the opportunity to ask questions to a nurse educator.
“It’s great to connect to people who understand everything you are going through.”
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.