The Midwest is in the midst of the largest mumps outbreak in the United States since 1988. In fact, when Chicago Parent went to press, Illinois health officials were reporting nearly 80 confirmed and probable cases of the virus this year and expecting the number to climb. Normally, there are about a dozen cases reported annually in Illinois.
Does a mumps outbreak mean, as a parent, you should be worried?
The short answer is: No. And the good news is very few of those infected are under age 14.
But here are a few answers to the questions you may have after reading the outbreak headlines.
Q: What is mumps? And what are the symptoms I should be looking for?
A: Mumps is an infectious virus. Symptoms include swollen glands in the jaw and neck area, fever, headache, pain and muscle aches, according to Dr. Joel Schwab, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Hospitals.
Q:Aren’t children vaccinated against mumps? And doesn’t that protect them?
A:Yes, most children get two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The first comes between 12 and 15 months, and the second usually between 4 to 6 years, in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. That means older children are protected. Adults who have had the mumps are also immune.
Q: What about babies who have yet to be vaccinated?
A: "Children under the age of 1 still have a certain amount of immunity that they receive from their mothers," says Schwab. Children who haven’t had the second dose also should be safe. "The second vaccination gives you another layer of protection, but that doesn’t mean that you’re more susceptible to the virus when you’ve only had one dose."
Q: Is there a cure for mumps?
A:There is no cure but you can ease the symptoms, which can last anywhere from five to 10 days. Schwab recommends giving children non-aspirin medications such as ibuprofen and applying warm or cold packs to swollen glands—either helps.
Q: What caused this outbreak?
A:No one really knows yet. At least officials are not saying one way or another. "We haven’t seen mumps in a major way in this country for a long time," says Lola Russell, CDC spokesperson. We do know it began on college campuses in Iowa, where there have been more than 500 cases reported since January.
Melaney Arnold, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health, speculates some of the climb in cases can be attributed to greater awareness. "Because mumps is getting a lot of media coverage right now, more physicians and parents know to check for it and diagnose it, when before some people just put it down to having a bad cold."
Q: Haven’t the people who are getting mumps been vaccinated? Does the vaccine expire?
A:Officials say there is no expiration on the effectiveness of the vaccine. Still, a lot of people who now have mumps were vaccinated, which doesn’t seem to make sense. "The vaccine is working. The thing is that it’s about 95 percent effective, so there is that small percentage of 5 percent for whom it does not work," Russell says. There is also a small percentage of people who never got vaccinated in the first place.
Q: How can I keep my child from being infected with mumps?
A: Arnold recommends good hygiene—washing your hands often with soap and water, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing and avoiding people with symptoms of the virus. A person with mumps is contagious about three days before the symptoms are obvious and then for another four days after. Children should stay home from school for about nine days after the symptoms make themselves apparent.
Russell’s advice to parents is simple: "Don’t delay—if you haven’t gotten your kids vaccinated, do it."
Farah Mohd Alkaf is an intern at Chicago Parent and an undergraduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.