What you need to know about mumps

Dr. Ben Kruskal, chief of infectious diseases at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, tells us all about mumps, the contagious viral infection affecting a local college campus.

Health officials recommend two doses of the MMR vaccine to get the best protection against mumps.

Six students at Harvard University have been diagnosed with the mumps, a contagious viral infection of the salivary glands.

People who contract mumps often experience fever, headache, muscle aches, tiredness, loss of appetite, and swollen glands. Most people recover fully but there is a rare chance of serious complications.

Before the U.S. began vaccinating against the mumps in 1967, there were about 186,000 cases reported each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now the amount of yearly cases range from a couple hundred to a couple thousand yearly. There were 2,612 cases in 2010 and 229 in 2012, reports the CDC.


We asked Dr. Ben Kruskal, chief of infectious diseases at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, about the risks associated with the Harvard mumps cases and what people can do to reduce their risk of contracting the virus.

What is mumps?

Mumps is a viral infection which has as its most common and distinctive clinical feature infection and swelling of the salivary glands in the cheeks.

What are the symptoms?

Fever, feeling crummy all over, being achy all over, headaches, decreased appetite. And then the swelling of the cheeks, which may also involve some soreness of the cheeks. Sometimes it’s actually felt in the ear or the jaw.


How does one contract mumps?

It’s transmitted by respiratory droplets, close face-to-face contact within three feet, which is the same mechanism by which flu and colds are transmitted. It can be transmitted by direct physical contact with an infected person or by contact with an object or surface that someone with mumps has recently touched.

How can you protect yourself from contracting mumps?

Two doses of the vaccine provides the best protection we have available, but it’s not 100 percent [effective].

What is the treatment?

There’s no specific treatment. There’s no antibiotic. You treat the symptoms like most viral infections.


Is it deadly?

It’s very, very, very rare.

Mumps can cause long-term problems, including effects on fertility.

Have most people received the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine?

It depends on the age. The vaccine started to be used widely in the 70s and people who have grown up in the U.S. and were born in the 60s and 70s have a pretty good chance at having had two doses already.

When do people get the MMR vaccine?

The standard schedule now is 12 months and 4 to 5 years.

Why do some people only have one dose?

Probably the biggest reason is, for some of us born in the early days of those vaccines, only one dose was recommended.


Even if you have two doses, you can still become infected with mumps?

[Of those vaccinated,] 85 to 95 percent will be protected. Ten to 15 percent may develop mumps if they are really exposed.

Are less parents choosing to give their kids the MMR vaccine?

There was a substantial period of time during which use of the MMR vaccine dropped because of some inaccurate and false accusations about side effects. Things have begun to recover. I don’t think we’re up to the full coverage we’d like to be, but it’s certainly much better.

Is that why cases of the mumps are cropping up?


I would love to say yes. I’m not so sure, because it’s popping up even in communities where vaccine coverage is reasonable. I don’t think I can say with confidence that that’s the problem.

What is the potential for the mumps to spread into Cambridge or other areas?

I think there’s a fairly reasonable chance it will spread outside the Harvard community. I know our public health folks are working very hard to try to avoid that. But I’m afraid there’s a decent chance it will show up in other communities.

Why were Harvard students asked to isolate themselves?


It’s one way to reduce the spread. People are infectious for about five days [after] the onset of the swelling. Keeping oneself isolated really reduces the risk of transmission.

Should folks in Cambridge panic?

Absolutely not. There’s no need to panic. But definitely, for the people in the community, to make sure they take the proper precautions. Make sure you are vaccinated.

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