Spokane County is currently experiencing the worst mumps outbreak in decades. As of Jan. 24, there were nearly 80 confirmed and probable cases of the mumps. About 70 percent of those cases are in children under 18.
The mumps spreads from person to person through contact with infected saliva. You’ve seen those photographs of a sneeze. Those thousands of tiny droplets have the water evaporate out of them and essentially become virus-containing dust particles in the air. All it takes is breathing in a few saliva droplets that you cannot even tell are in the air after an infected person coughs or sneezes. You could also get it from sharing a utensil or cup with someone who is infected but doesn’t have any symptoms yet.
The incubation period, the time it takes between being exposed to a virus and showing symptoms of illness, for the mumps is two to three weeks. You are contagious from seven days before you even begin to have symptoms to about eight days after they start. Just to make it more complicated, somewhere around 30 percent of people with mumps have few or no symptoms. They can be contagious without even knowing that they are sick. Symptoms of the mumps include:
Swelling and pain in the jaw (the saliva glands in front of the ears)
Pain when you swallow or open your mouth
Pain when you eat sour foods or drink sour liquids, such as citrus fruit or juice
Testicular pain (males) or pelvic discomfort (females).
Most people who catch the mumps will recover completely 10 days to a few weeks after they fall ill. This may make you wonder what the big deal is about getting vaccinated for mumps.
In a few patients, mumps will cause brain infections that can leave a person deaf or with permanent intellectual disability. Men and adolescent boys who get the mumps run the risk of ending up sterile. While not common, it is possible to die from the mumps. Prior to the introduction of the mumps vaccine in 1967, there were 40 to 50 deaths a year from mumps in the United States.
After two doses, the mumps vaccine is 88 percent effective at preventing you from catching the mumps. That’s pretty good protection overall, but in a school with 500 students who are all vaccinated, there are around 60 who might be vulnerable. They are likely to have partial immunity and thus a milder case if they do catch it.
With the present outbreak in Spokane it is recommended that all children except those with immune deficiencies be vaccinated. Teachers are required to either prove that they are immune through a blood test, show that they have been vaccinated, or get vaccinated. There is very little chance of harm from vaccination. In Spokane schools with two or more mumps cases, children who have never been immunized and who do not or cannot get immunized are being required to stay home for the duration of the outbreak.
My strong recommendation is to get yourself and your kids vaccinated against the mumps if you are not already. There are a few small groups of people who should not get vaccinated, so check with your health care provider to make sure no one is in one of those groups.
Check with your health care provider or local pharmacy on the availability of the vaccine. Also, Spokane Regional Health District periodically offers no-cost vaccination clinics. You can see if any are coming up by checking its website (http://www.srhd.org/) or calling (509-324-1500). Stack the odds in your favor and get vaccinated.
Dr. Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in Live Well.
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