A fever, sore muscles, headache and the telltale painful swelling in your cheeks and neck. Mumps is resurfacing with outbreaks across Canada and in the United States.
“We’ve seen several outbreaks over the past five years. This shouldn’t be happening. There should be fewer outbreaks and the outbreaks shouldn’t be as big,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a tropical infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital and the University of Toronto, said.
“Mumps isn’t going away and unlike something like the measles, where we can predict where it’s going to happen, mumps can crop up and happen at any time. The best thing to do is keep yourself protected. If you don’t know what your vaccination records are, go and find out, and if you haven’t had a second vaccine, get it done,” Jason Tetro, a Canadian microbiologist and author of The Germ Files, advised.
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The experts walked Global News through the illness, what it is, how it spreads, and how Canadians can protect their kids and their families.
What is mumps and what are the symptoms?
For starters, mumps is a viral infection, but it’s mostly preventable with the help of vaccines.
It has an incubation period of about two weeks and about a third of people who get infected with the virus don’t even show symptoms. You could be shedding the virus for up to three days without even knowing you’re sick.
But once the illness ramps up, the symptoms will kick in. You’ll encounter a fever, headache or earache, tiredness, sore muscles, dry mouth, trouble talking, chewing or swallowing and a loss of appetite.
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And then there’s the trademark puffy cheeks and neck that comes with mumps as it seeps into the salivary glands. This is known as parotitis.
“That’s the hallmark chipmunk cheeks we associate with the mumps,” Tetro explained.
It gets into your lymph ducts and can spread to the testicles in men, the pancreas and the ovaries for women, Tetro warned.
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For most people, mumps will run its course in about seven to 10 days but in rare cases it’ll cause complications. These concerns run from deafness, meningitis and even inflammation in the testicles or ovaries that can be tied to decreased fertility.
“These aren’t common but they’re also not uncommon complications,” Bogoch said.
How does it spread?
Just like the chicken pox and measles, mumps is highly contagious. It spreads through saliva or mucus, usually from coughing, sneezing or talking, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Toronto, health officials tied a mumps outbreak that got 17 people sick to bars in the city’s west end. In Medicine Hat, a mumps outbreak sparked an alert as the Western Hockey League tried to tame the spread of the virus. It has hit the University of Alberta and the Vancouver Canucks hockey team.
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And don’t forget 2014’s outbreak of mumps that made its way through NHL locker rooms. Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry and Ryan Suter were among the superstars that fell victim to mumps.
It makes sense, the experts say. There’s a reason why some infectious diseases spread like wildfire through sports teams, cruise ships, daycares and old age homes, for example.
It’s all about being within close proximity of people shedding the virus or sharing items with them.
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“This is why you start seeing it on hockey teams. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen what happens in a hockey game but there’s spitting and snorting and you see the splash of fluids and you don’t know what it’s supposed to be,” Tetro said.
“There’s a lot of sharing going on. It’s not romantic but it’s still bodily fluids making the rounds,” Tetro explained.
Why are we seeing outbreaks across North America?
The mumps is likely one of the viruses with the highest vaccination rates, 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.
While it’s incredibly potent in shielding against measles and chicken pox, its efficacy is about 80 per cent for one dose and 88 per cent for two doses when it comes to mumps.
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“Almost perfect,” the experts say.
There are a handful of issues going on, though. By adulthood, vaccine efficacy can wane. In as a little as a few years, you can lose upwards of 25 to 30 per cent of efficacy and within 10 years, you might lose upwards of 85 per cent of efficacy.
This is why some NHL hockey coaches in 2014 took the extra measure of getting a third booster for their athletes.
Another caveat is that some people may have received only a single dose instead of two, making them vulnerable to the virus.
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There has been little tinkering with the MMVR vaccine since its inception in the 1970s. It protects against the A strain of mumps but over the past decade, health officials have seen the proliferation of the G strain, Tetro warned.
“When you get the vaccine you’re going to have some ability to fight off this G strain but it might not be enough unless immunity is working at its top level,” he explained.
Finally, some parents are forgoing vaccination for their kids altogether, Bogoch said.
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“One of the major issues with this current outbreak is that many people who are getting the mumps just aren’t vaccinated or they’re only getting one shot from decades,” he said.
“With fewer people being vaccinated, we’re going to keep seeing outbreaks,” he said.
How can I protect myself and my family?
Your best bet is to get vaccinated, the experts say.
“No it’s not 100 per cent but it’s very, very good. It’s a very safe and very effective vaccine to prevent mumps,” Bogoch said.
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If you’re not sure what your vaccination status is, visit your doctor to pull up your records or he or she can order a titre test, in which a doctor draws blood from an individual and has a lab check what the patient has immunity against or is susceptible to. This will uncover any missing vaccines or booster shots you may need.