Britain faces epidemic of mumps
February 04, 2005
By Sam Lister, Health Correspondent
Huge increase in suspected cases among teenagers who missed out on MMR vaccine
BRITAIN faces an epidemic of mumps after a 14-fold increase in suspected
cases of the disease over the past year.
More than a thousand children, teenagers and young adults with suspected
mumps are being seen by doctors every week - the highest level for more
than 15 years.
The latest figures from the Health Protection Agency show that 3,504
suspected mumps cases were reported in the first three weeks of January, up
from 248 over the same period last year. Health experts said last night
that the weekly total was likely to continue to rise.
Of those people affected, more than two thirds are between the age of 15
and 24 - most of whom were too old to have had the joint measles, mumps and
rubella (MMR) vaccine which was introduced for babies in the late 1980s.
The outbreak is thought to have occurred because this high-risk group has
now reached university age, when they are in particularly close contact and
the virus can be transmitted easily.
Young children who were already at risk because their parents refused to
allow them to have the MMR jab - after unfounded concerns about links to
autism - are also particularly susceptible to the growing reservoir of
Almost 16,000 people in England and Wales saw their GP with likely cases of
mumps in the second half of last year, compared with 2,000 over the same
period in 2003.
Up to 75 per cent of cases notified by GPs are normally confirmed as mumps
after laboratory tests.
Since last September, several universities have set up vaccination
programmes and written to students advising them to have the MMR jab as
concerns about a possible epidemic have grown.
Oxford, Manchester, Leeds, Kent, Nottingham and Birmingham universities
were among those following the advice of local public health agencies in
taking steps to protect students.
Some university authorities have asked students with mumps to go home to
their parents and not to return to their studies until they are better,
reviving memories of children being put into quarantine 50 years ago.
Mumps is caused by a virus and is spread by saliva from infected people.
Symptoms begin with a headache and fever for a day or two, before swelling
affects the parotid glands in the neck and face. Patients are often
compared in appearance to a hamster with food in its cheeks. Last night,
the Health Protection Agency confirmed that the outbreak was getting
progressively worse, with almost 1,400 cases of infection notified in the
last week of January.
Extra drop-in vaccination clinics were set up in Coventry last week in an
attempt to stop the infection spreading.
Doctors in the area had reported nearly 500 cases since November, compared
with 25 in a normal year. In Leeds, nearly 1,500 pupils were vaccinated in
one day this week as the number of reported cases reached 126, compared
with 11 for the same month last year.
An agency spokesman said: "We know there is a large group of students and
young adults who are more susceptible to mumps - therefore we do expect the
number of cases to reduce in the near future."
He added: "You would also expect those cases to trickle down to other age
groups, especially those who have not had their MMR yet."
The spokesman said the number of cases in younger children would be
considerably less than for more infectious diseases such as measles.
Mumps is described as a mild, self-limiting viral disease but it can have
profound side-effects, including meningitis and deafness.
One in five men and adolescent boys infected will suffer inflammation of
one or both testes and need pain-killers. Very rarely, mumps can render men
Signs of the current epidemic first emerged three years ago, when rates
began to increase among teenagers who missed out on the introduction of the
infant MMR vaccine programme, launched late in 1988.
* Mumps is an acute viral illness spread via saliva
* Rare complications can include swelling of the ovaries/testes,
meningitis and deafness
* Mumps was the commonest cause of viral meningitis in children before
1988, when the MMR vaccine was introduced