Mumps Outbreak 2016/2017: Should We Be Concerned?

In recent months, there have been reported increases in Mumps country wide, from Seattle Washington where last years mumps cases were only 7 compared to this year’s nearly 100, and to Arkansas whose reporting the worst outbreak since the 1970s to even Harvard, Massachusetts, causing infections on the well known college campus. What has caused this spike in outbreaks, what can be done to keep you and your family safe, and what does this mean for our outlook in 2017? Here, we seek to answer just that.

Before We Begin, What is Mumps?

A map showing outbreaks of Mumps in nearly every state as of December 3, 2016.
A map showing outbreaks of Mumps in nearly every state as of December 3, 2016. Source: Centers for Disease Control.

Before we can get a grip on what this rise in cases mean, we have to first understand what Mumps is, and how it spreads.
Mumps is caused by a Rubulavirus which often spreads from person to person through the infected person coughing, sneezing or talking closely with other individuals. Likewise, those that cover their cough or sneeze but do not wash their hands pose a risk to individuals who may touch the individual or any objects the individual has touched will likewise pose significant risk of infection, as can doing such things as sharing utensils or cups. As a result, there is some correlation between the holiday season and an increase in Mumps cases even in areas that are typically well vaccinated.

Now, what does Mumps do? Well, it largely depends on the individual. For some children and adults, it can have no symptoms or seem to be just a bit of a seasonal sickness with little complications. Most people however, do begin presenting symptoms that can leave them feeling quite unwell within about two to three weeks after initial contact with another infected person. These symptoms can include but are not limited to fever, headache and muscle ache, fatigue, a decreased appetite, and the trademark for the disease, swollen salivary glands (typically found just beneath the ears, but can also be seen as swelling or inflammation under the chin). In some cases, serious complications can result from infection, including deafness, encephalitis, meningitis (both of which in turn may cause paralysis or death), and for males, there is a chance this disease may cause infertility if caught after puberty as a result of testicular inflammation.

How Bad is the Recent Mumps Outbreak, and What’s Causing it?

A graph showing yearly Mumps cases in the United States, Source: Centers for Disease Control
A graph showing yearly Mumps cases in the United States, Source: Centers for Disease Control

Let’s start out by saying that while this is currently on record as the worst outbreak in about a decade, we are still only at around 70% the level of Mumps infection as in 2006. As further assurance, one should note that in year to year comparison, we are still well below 10% of what Mumps infection levels were before 1967 (when the vaccination program for Measles, Mumps and Rubella began in the United States), when the average case number was around 186,000. So in short, this outbreak is pretty big in regards to recent history, but is not anything to panic about; We have survived far worse.

However, that does still leave the question on what on earth is causing such a large outbreak this year? Well, we may not know for certain, but based on previous outbreaks we can make a few pretty good guesses about this year. First, we know that in the previous few years, most cases have been limited to sites such as Universities (even in this outbreak, locations near the University of Washington and Harvard University have been included), and then spread slightly with the dismissal of classes. Places that often require close contact with crowds have often been hotspots, and the introduction of only one infected individual from another site can cause illness to occur in others, as seen in the 2009-2010 outbreak, where a high school student traveled from New York to the United Kingdom and back, carrying back with him not only his luggage, but the virus as well.

What can I do to Protect Myself/ My Child / My Family from Mumps?

As mentioned earlier in the article, the Mumps Virus has had an effective vaccine since 1967 with the distribution of the MMR vaccine seeing nationwide adoption. While not perfect (single dose MMR can prevent about 78% of cases, while a dose and a booster shot later can provide closer to 90% protection), this vaccine has done wonders at the population level and is a primary factor in why we aren’t hailing this outbreak as remarkably small. Likewise, common sanitary measures such as washing your hands frequently, wearing a mask if you are sick, and covering your cough and sneezes with your arm as opposed to your hand can help lessen the odds of spreading it to someone. Likewise, limiting touching your hands to your face after touching objects may give some benefit. At time of writing, there is no curative therapy for Mumps, however it is strongly advised that those individuals who suspect they may have Mumps go see a physician for both their own benefit and treatment, and those around them. This can not only help prevent spread, but actions can be taken early on to help lessen the risk of potential complications.

  • Alicia Poore

    Those who take the live MMR vaccine shed it and infect other people!!! No mystery who the culprits are. It is the vaccine strain that is spreading and shedding to people of all ages!

    • Sharon Minton

      Do you think maybe this is a purposeful thing the government is doing??

  • Sharon Minton

    This outbreak-as well as the 2016 one-causes me a bit of worry.I’ve never had the mumps-ever.When I was a little girl,I had one of my siblings get it,and since there were 5 of us being only a year apart each (my poor mom!) my Mother decided to let us all interact closely together-i.e.-use each others eating utensils,drink out of each others’ glasses,chew each others’ gum.That way-she figured we’d all have them at the same time,get it over with,and it would be easier on her too. Except-like with everything else-I had to be the different one.Even after all that-I still never got the mumps.That all happened when I was about 5 or 6 years old.Now-I’m nearly 60. So,for me-this is scary. I nearly drowned at 7,and I was also so sick at 7, my parents thought I was going to die.But evey time-it all turned out okay, tanks to some petty awesome guardian angels-whoever they ae.But you know how sometimes-you hear about this super lucky person who seems to evade all these life-threatening incidents-only to be taken down by something simple? That’s what scares me about this outbreak.Hope I live through it! Seeing my doctor asap!