With Mumps cases at 10-year high, are Philly-area college students at risk?

Mumps, an airborne virus that is extremely contagious, is spreading quickly in Washington State where hundreds have contracted the disease and public health officials are scrambling to find a solution.

College campuses, like the many that cover the Philadelphia region, may be the perfect storm for an outbreak. With waning immunity and a virus that is highly contagious, one person can infect up to a dozen others.

Mumps is approximately five times as contagious as the seasonal flu, norovirus, Swine Flu, or SARS, but many people aren’t as informed on Mumps because its vaccine has kept the number of cases low.  The MMR vaccine—which protects against measles, mumps and rubella – is extremely effective. Numerous studies have shown that it prevents 85 to 95 percent of vaccinated individuals from becoming infected. However, the vaccine may be a victim of its own success—as the incidence of mumps has decreased by 99 percent since the introduction of the vaccine in 1967, there is less exposure to the virus over time, which may result in declining immunity.  

Immunologists are trying to determine if another booster might be necessary in addition to the two currently recommended immunizations at ages 12-15 months and again before children enter school between 4-6 years.

Recent mumps cases, including those in 2006 and again in 2016, have occurred in college students.  Therefore, it may be that in this population of young adults who live in close-quarters, immunity has waned leaving even vaccinated, and certainly unvaccinated, students at risk.

Mumps is found in saliva or mucus from the mouth, nose, or throat and can be spread through coughing, sneezing, or talking. It can also be spread by individuals sharing cups, utensils, or kissing.

While symptoms such as fever, headache, muscle ache, and loss of appetite may resemble the flu, the prototypical and distinguishing symptom of mumps is swollen or tender salivary glands. One of the more concerning complications of the recent outbreak is that mumps infection in adults—such as in college students—may cause inflammation of the sex organs, including testes, ovaries, and breast, and in rare cases, can cause inflammation of the brain.

Symptoms typically appear more than two weeks after infection and may be extremely mild, so those with the virus could spread it without knowing they have the disease.

The good news is that genetic studies have determined that mumps has not mutated or become resistant to the vaccine. This is in part because you are being vaccinated with a live, but severely weakened mumps virus, and therefore your body is able to create a very effective immune response to the virus.

Adults who did not receive the recommended two doses of the vaccine, or are unsure of their vaccination status, can and should still receive the vaccine. Any immunity that your body builds will be more effective at protecting your health than if you have never been vaccinated.

Dr. Stacey Gorski is an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of the Sciences. Gorski is also an infectious disease immunologist with a focus on virus epidemiology and the use of vaccines and therapies to prevent and treat infection. She has written and spoken extensively in the areas of germs, vaccines, and immunology.


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