Outbreak: What you need to know about mumps

Outbreak: What you need to know about mumps

An outbreak of mumps at Harvard University has made headlines across the country. More than 40 people have already been sickened. What many people think of as an “old timey” disease threatens very contemporary graduation ceremonies at one of the country’s most respected institutions of higher learning.

Once infecting more than 200,000 people per year, many of them 5-14 years old, mumps outbreaks are fairly uncommon now. The mumps vaccine, introduced in 1967, has cut reported cases to only a few hundred to a few thousand cases each year.

Because of this relative rarity, many people don’t really understand what mumps is all about.

What is the mumps?

Mumps is a very contagious disease caused by a virus. The disease is best known for the puffy cheeks and swollen jaw that it causes as a result of swollen salivary glands. Other common symptoms include fever, headache, loss of appetite and muscle aches.

The large majority of infected people suffer through mild symptoms for a week or two, but there can be serious, if rare, effects of the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mumps can lead to dangerous inflammation and swelling of the brain and other organs. In boys and men, infection can lead to painful, swollen testicles. And, in some women, mumps can cause painful swelling in their breasts.

Mumps spreads through saliva or mucus from the mouth, nose or throat. The virus can be passed from person to person by:

  • coughing, sneezing or talking
  • sharing cups or eating utensils
  • touching objects or surfaces with unwashed hands that are then touched by others

Dr. Kamo Sidhwa, an infectious disease specialist at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill. explains why Harvard is typical of other closely knit communities so often stricken with mumps flare ups.

“Most often, outbreaks don’t happen in the general population. They are much more likely among groups of people who live or work in close quarters, like college classrooms or dormitories,” says Dr. Sidhwa. “There are just so many more opportunities to be exposed to the virus in these densely packed arrangements.”

Living with mumps

According to Dr. Sidhwa, if you think that you or your child has mumps, call your doctor. A physician can confirm the diagnosis, work with you to monitor symptoms and notify health authorities who keep track of public health issues.

There are also some things you can do to minimize the discomfort that the infection can cause.

“You can use non-aspirin pain relievers such as ibuprofen to help reduce fever and pain,” Dr. Sidhwa says. “I also recommend a soft, bland diet that doesn’t require a lot of chewing. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids, but avoid serving acidic or tart fruit juices like orange juice or lemonade that make jaw and cheek pain worse.”

Preventing mumps

According to the CDC, the mumps vaccine is given as part of a combination vaccine, called the MMR vaccine, that protects against measles, mumps and rubella (German measles). A first dose is usually given to children at 12–15 months of age. A second dose of MMR is generally given at four to six years of age. If they haven’t already received them, students who are attending colleges and other post-high school institutions should be sure they have had two doses of the MMR vaccine.

Dr. Sidhwa says that in the event of a local measles outbreak, your doctor may recommend additional shots of the vaccine if your child is between one and four years old. She also recommends that adults check with their physicians before getting vaccinated, as there are some risks involved for select groups, such as pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems.

It should be noted, says Dr. Sidhwa, that vaccinated people can still get sick, as evidenced by the Harvard outbreak. The Boston Globe has reported that all of the infected Harvard students had been vaccinated.

Dr. Sidhwa explains that the mumps vaccine fails to work as expected in about 10-12 percent of the population, leaving them open to infection. In highly populated areas, such as dormitories, the amount of exposure to the virus may overwhelm the antibodies produced in an individual by the vaccine previously. And, outbreaks can erupt if a virus has mutated in a way that makes vaccination less effective.

“The vaccine is not 100 percent effective for a number of reasons, so outbreaks can occur even in highly vaccinated populations,” she says. “That’s why it is important to follow general good hygiene practices such as frequent hand washing and covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze.”

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About the Author

Nate Llewellyn
Nate Llewellyn

Nate Llewellyn, health enews contributor, is a manager of public affairs at Advocate Medical Group. Nate began his career as a journalist and builds daily on his nearly 20 years of writing experience. He spends most of his free time following his wife to their two sons’ various activities.