Mumps On Campus

The Ohio State University is reporting an outbreak of 23 cases of mumps on campus. Eighteen students and one staff member — as well as others with links to the University community — apparently have the disease.

Mumps is one of those diseases, like scarlet fever or measles, that people used to get as kids before vaccines became commonplace. I had mumps when I was a tot, and so did all of the kids in my family. I remember being tired and having a sore throat and swollen glands, but getting to eat ice cream and drink 7-Up and read Archie comic books in bed made it bearable.

We tend to think of childhood diseases as not so serious, and usually they aren’t — at least, not if you get them when you’re a kid. If you get mumps as an adult, however, it can have more serious consequences, including swelling in some tender areas for post-pubescent males. Mumps also is the kind of disease that sounds tailor-made for transmission in a college campus setting. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

“Mumps is spread by droplets of saliva or mucus from the mouth, nose, or throat of an infected person, usually when the person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Items used by an infected person, such as soft drink cans or eating utensils, can also be contaminated with the virus, which may spread to others if those items are shared. In addition, the virus may spread when someone with mumps touches items or surfaces without washing their hands and someone else then touches the same surface and rubs their mouth or nose.”

Now, compare that description of mumps transmission to the close quarters and hygiene standards found in the off-campus residences and dorm rooms maintained by college students, and you’ll soon find yourself wondering how big an outbreak of mumps on a college campus could become. (If you’re an Ohio State basketball fan, you also find yourself hoping that all of the members of the team have been vaccinated.)

Which raises one final point: you don’t get mumps if you had it as a kid or you’ve been vaccinated. I thought vaccinations for mumps was pretty universal in the United States. An outbreak of 23 cases of the mumps suggests that understanding may be unfounded — which is deeply troubling. Aren’t parents getting basic vaccinations for their kids these days? If they aren’t, why not? It makes you wonder if other basic public health steps are being ignored, and what other outbreaks and consequences might lie in store for us as a result.