Why the NHL locker room is the perfect catalyst for a mumps outbreak

WATCH ABOVE: With Crosby’s diagnosis, there are now 14 reported cases of the mumps in the NHL. The virus has not yet hit the Toronto Maple Leafs. Rob Leth reports.

TORONTO – Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry and Ryan Suter. They’re among the growing list of NHL superstars who have fallen victim to the mumps. The childhood disease is making its way through the locker room and Canadian infectious disease experts aren’t surprised.

The first few cases started in Anaheim as three of the city’s Ducks fell ill. In Minnesota, five of the Wild caught the mumps, too. In the past week, players from the New York Rangers, the New Jersey Devils and the Pittsburgh Penguins turned up with the same illness.

It’s fascinating for health officials to watch. Typically, a mumps outbreak is localized to one small environment, but this time its reach spreads from coast to coast within a subset of the community, according to Canadian microbiologist and The Germ Code author, Jason Tetro.

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READ MORE: Sidney Crosby latest victim of NHL mumps outbreak

By Sunday night, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Crosby became the 14th victim within the league. (Reports suggest his teammate Beau Bennett might also have also caught the virus.)

Crosby is  joining Perry, Francois Beauchemin, Clayton Stoner and Emerson Etem of the Anaheim Ducks, Suter, Keith Ballard, Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin and Christian Folin of the Minnesota Wild, Tanner Glass of the New York Rangers and Travis Zajac and Adam Larsson of the New Jersey Devils.

What causes mumps?

The illness is caused by a group of viruses called paramyxoviruses – they’re also to blame for a number of infections, including the measles.

The most common symptoms of the mumps are fever, headache, muscle aches and tiredness. And then there are the swollen salivary glands under the ears, known as parotitis.

“That’s the hallmark chipmunk cheeks we associate with the mumps,” Tetro explains.

READ MORE: Is the NHL going through a mumps outbreak?

The mumps comes with a lengthy incubation period, though. It can take about two weeks for symptoms to show, and one-third of its victims don’t present with symptoms at all. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to 12 to 25 days for incubation, which means that cases could keep popping up into the New Year.)

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Those tell-tale chipmunk cheeks usually turn up in the final stages of the infection, which means infected people could be shedding the virus to their peers unknowingly.

WATCH: Dr. Samir Gupta explains what the mumps virus is, and why it’s spreading through the NHL despite the vaccine’s availability.

This doesn’t bode well for the hockey players who are training, travelling and working around the clock together.

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“When you’re in an environment where everyone is huffing, puffing, spitting and snorting, it’s the perfect combination to spread the virus and you don’t even know you have it when you’re spreading it,” Tetro explained.

“We’re talking about the NHL here but this happens worldwide because we have different outbreaks of mumps all across the globe and it’s even made public health officials realize that mumps is back on the map,” Tetro said.

READ MORE: Anti-vaccination movement means preventable diseases making a comeback

(Right now, as the NHL battles its own outbreak, the mumps is coursing through U.S. college campuses.)

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Dr. Michael Gardam, University Health Network chief of infectious diseases and prevention, isn’t surprised either. Think of how fervently infectious diseases make their way through sports teams (and cruise ships, daycares and old age homes). Between norovirus and the seasonal flu, the mumps is just the latest example.

“There have been outbreaks of herpes during a football game. These guys are pounding each other, there’s direct physical contact so that explains that. Whenever you have human beings in close proximity, there will be spread,” Gardam explained.

The mumps virus is “highly contagious.”

It spreads through saliva or mucus, usually from coughing, sneezing or talking, according to the CDC. If the hockey players are sharing water bottles or equipment, that can also contribute to the spread.

READ MORE: How norovirus can bring 600 cruise ship vacationers to their knees

Aside from sitting out for a few games, there is reason for concern. The virus is tied to some complications the hockey players won’t be happy to hear about: in 20 per cent of cases, it can lead to a swelling of the testicles called orchitis, lower sperm count and even permanent infertility.

It’s rare but there’s also risk of hearing loss and meningitis.

Why aren’t the players protected against the childhood disease?

The mumps is likely one of the highest vaccinated viruses, according to Tetro. In Canada, it’s built into the MMVR vaccine that’s doled out to children to protect against measles, mumps, the chicken pox and rubella.

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In kids, it’s typically about 95 to 99 per cent effective. “Almost perfect,” the experts say.

By adulthood, its efficacy wanes.

“It’s much like learning a new language. If you don’t use it, you lose it. In as little as a few years, you can lose wards of 25 to 30 per cent of efficacy and within 10 years you might lose upwards of 85 per cent of efficacy,” Tetro warned.

The vaccine is doled out in two doses in childhood, but Gardam says some research has suggested a third booster during an outbreak can help. (Some coaches and players are already taking on the extra measure of getting a mumps shot, including Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle.)

READ MORE: Maple Leafs coach gets his mumps shot

“It’s something they may want to consider because these are fairly expensive commodities they’re dealing with,” Gardam said.

Both the experts say that the outbreak hasn’t run its course yet.

“The incubation is relatively long so you could have people infected two weeks ago who are just now developing symptoms. Even if you vaccinated everybody today, it’s going to take a little while to get this under control,” Gardam said.

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Tetro estimates that another 10 players could be diagnosed within the coming days or weeks. That’s a testament to how many athletes are immune to the virus – the number of cases could have been much higher.

“There’s probably been well over 100 people who have been exposed and have no symptoms, so while it’s a little concerning in the grand scheme of things, this is just another outbreak,” he said.

WATCH ABOVE: Nine other players in the NHL are confirmed to have contracted the mumps. It’s a contagious viral infection that causes pain, fatigue and difficulty swallowing. As Crystal Goomansingh reports, there is a vaccine but two doses are needed and it’s not 100 per cent effective.

Many teams are taking every precaution to make sure it doesn’t spread to their players.

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The league and NHL Players’ Association recently told The Canadian Press that training staffs and players were being educated on how to stop the spread of the mumps.

– With files from the Canadian Press

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