Miserable with Mumps?

I hadn’t heard about mumps for years so I was surprised at the outbreak in the Midwest. I thought most people were vaccinated against mumps. What happened?

– May 16, 2006

The sudden outbreak of mumps that began in Iowa in March (2006) and then spread throughout the Midwest has yet to be explained. Although most people in the United States have been vaccinated against mumps or are protected because they were infected as youngsters, small outbreaks have occurred over the years, mostly among people who live in close quarters such as college dormitories. In 2005 there was an outbreak in a summer camp in New York State after the arrival of an unvaccinated camp counselor from Britain who brought the disease with him. (The United Kingdom had more than 43,000 cases of mumps in 2005 due to large numbers of unvaccinated youngsters.)

Epidemiologists from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been tracking the mumps epidemic in an effort to contain it. They have identified a woman who developed the disease after flying from Iowa to Washington, D.C. and back. Health authorities have suggested that everyone on her flights and everyone she contacted in Washington and after her return to Iowa be vaccinated.

The disease spreads via direct contact with respiratory secretions or saliva of an infected person and can be transmitted three days before symptoms appear, during the illness, and until about nine days after symptoms appear. The incubation period usually is 16 to 18 days from the time of exposure until symptoms appear. These include fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, and loss of appetite. The painful swelling characteristic of mumps usually affects the parotid salivary glands located within the cheek, near your jaw line, below the ears. But a good number of people who get the mumps may not have any symptoms at all.

There is no specific treatment for mumps. You may feel better if you apply hot or cold compresses to swollen areas, gargle with warm salt water to soothe sore throat, take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for the fever and drink plenty of liquids (avoid acidic drinks such as orange juice). Homeopathic remedies such as belladonna and poke root can also be helpful.

The mumps vaccine, introduced in 1967, is considered 95 percent effective, meaning that of every 100 vaccinated individuals, up to five may contract mumps if exposed to the virus. Although mumps is seldom severe or life-threatening, up to half of young men affected develop swelling of the testicles, called orchitis, which can be a cause of sterility later on. Rarely, mumps can lead to deafness, inflammation of the brain and spontaneous abortion. As with other childhood diseases, complications are more likely when adults are infected.

Your best protection is vaccination. If you have received the recommended two doses of the vaccine, you should have lifelong immunity.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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