A number of college campuses in the greater Boston area reported mumps infections on their campuses this year, including a handful of students at Harvard, Bentley, UMass Boston and a recent confirmed case and another suspected case on the Tufts campus.
Should students be alarmed? Not really. Though Boston received nine reports of the mumps so far this year, the disease is “no longer very common,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. That being said, the number of cases can vary widely each year, from a couple hundred to thousands -- for example, in 2010, the United States saw 2,612 cases, but only 229 in 2012.
So, it’s not unusual to see a burst of infections from time to time, especially on college campuses, where students often live in cramped proximity to one another. According to the Boston Globe, mumps outbreaks were reported on campuses in the Bay State in 2006, 2008, and 2013.
While the state has strict laws requiring students in college and k-12 receive multiple measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations before they attend school, the vaccine is effective only about 88 percent of the time in preventing an infection.
“Nothing in medicine works 100 percent of the time, of course,” Dr. Anita Barry, director of the Infectious Disease Bureau at the Boston Public Health Commission told Metro. “The mumps vaccine is the best we have, but it’s not as effective as we’d like.”
To be sure, the vaccine has nearly stamped out the virus since its introduction in 1967 -- the CDC reports cases dropped over 99 percent in the decades to follow. Still, in the close quarters of a college dormitory, that 12 percent failure rate can start to add up.
As a precaution, Barry recommends that even vaccinated students take the same steps they normally would to avoid infectious diseases, noting the disease is caused by an airborne virus spread through coughing or sneezing.
“If someone is obviously ill, it’s always a good idea to stay about six feet away from their face,” Barry said. “And that’s true not just for mumps, but other diseases.”
Barry also recommended students stay away from sharing “cigarettes, eating utensils, lipsticks, bottles” or other objects that could transmit mucus or saliva.
Those at risk should also familiarize themselves with the signs and symptoms of mumps, she said. The disease usually presents as a mostly mild illness, though in time it can wreak havoc on those infected -- left unchecked, common symptoms like a low fever, headache and swelling in the jaw and glands can lead to more serious complications, like meningitis or the swelling of the brain and testicles in men. Symptoms can appear anywhere from 2-4 weeks after contact with an infected person, according to health officials.
Barry stressed that mumps symptoms -- including the telltale swelling of the jaw -- can also be caused by other kinds of infections, but that anyone experiencing them should still make a point to see their doctor as soon as possible.