UI sees biggest mumps outbreak in decade

By Mariah Schaefer

A mumps outbreak that started around April at the University has continued to produce cases of the viral illness.

According to Rachella Thompson-Brown, communicable disease investigator at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, there have been around 58 cases of mumps reported, and the majority have been on campus.

She said there have been about 51 cases of mumps at the University and seven cases in the surrounding community.

“This is one of our largest outbreaks,” said Dr. Robert Palinkas, director of McKinley Health Center. “We generally have a few cases of mumps almost every year … Having this number of cases is more than we have seen in a decade.”

Thompson-Brown said health officials do not quite know how the outbreak started, but most people who contracted the viral illness had been vaccinated against it in the past.

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    “What we’ve been seeing is, of all the cases I’ve investigated, they have had very mild symptoms,” she said. “We think that had a lot to do with them having some protection from the vaccine.”

    She said there have been no hospitalizations due to the outbreak so far.

    The University requires all incoming students to submit a copy of their immunization history, and being vaccinated against mumps is one of the immunizations required.

    Although students are required to be vaccinated against mumps only once, two shots are recommended.

    According to Thompson-Brown, one measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine offers about 75 percent protection against the viral illnesses, and two doses of the MMR vaccine offer around 85 percent protection.

    “Vaccination does a huge amount, but it’s not perfect,” Palinkas said. “Mumps used to be a disease everybody got … When they got a vaccine, it pushed it down to a very low level nationally, but it’s not perfect.

    “That would mean there could be several thousand people on our campus who, even though they were vaccinated, could come down with mumps,” Palinkas said.

    Thompson-Brown said at this time, there has been no recommendation for a booster of the MMR vaccine or of the vaccine against mumps.

    She said the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District has focused on providing information about mumps to the community in order to prevent a bigger outbreak.

    “That way, if people have clinical symptoms of mumps, they need to isolate themselves, and they need to go get tested,” Thompson-Brown said.

    According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, mumps is “contagious three days prior to and four days after the onset of symptoms.” It is spread by those infected through their coughs, sneezes, saliva and mucus.

    The viral illness causes those infected to experience a swelling of their cheeks and jaws.

    Palinkas said that when a student is diagnosed with mumps at the University, professionals at McKinley “work with the individual and create a plan that keeps them out of circulation during their period when they are contagious.”

    He said they focus on the people with whom the infected student might have come in contact during the early phase of the student’s illness and make sure that “those people are aware that they may have been exposed to mumps.”

    Depending on the circumstances, Palinkas said they might send informational emails to a residence hall if someone living there has been diagnosed with mumps. He said that for roommates of those infected, they often speak with them in person.

    With less than a month left until the start of the fall semester, it is unclear what will happen with the outbreak once students start arriving on campus.

    “That is the big unknown question for fall,” Palinkas said. “We really have no way of knowing whether … we will continue to see a couple of cases a week or whether it will trail off or whether it will be a bigger problem when there are more students on campus.”

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