The mumps return

Quite a few students returned from spring break with more than sunburns this year. A cluster of 13 mumps cases have been traced to people who traveled to South Padre Island from six different states between March 8 and March 22. And state health officials have alerted doctors to be on the lookout for more.

The Texas Department of State Health Services issued an alert Wednesday, saying Texas is experiencing a 20-year high in mumps cases. Beyond South Padre, a number of outbreaks have been reported throughout the state. Texas has seen a total of 221 mumps cases so far this year, the most since 1994.

“Currently the concern is for people who are in late adolescence or their late teens and early 20s,” said Dr. Jason Bowling, staff epidemiologist at University Health System and an infectious disease specialist with UT Health San Antonio. “You can see it at any age, but that group in particular is at risk because of being in environments where they’re close together, like in schools.”

Mumps is extremely contagious. It’s spread through droplets from coughing and sneezing, sharing drinks and close contact.

Dr. Bowling said the mumps vaccine, given to children in two doses at ages 1 and 4, is about 90 percent effective at preventing the infection.

“But when people don’t receive it, it increases the likelihood that they can get infected and then transmit it to people who have been vaccinated,” he said. And although a vaccinated person who contracts mumps will have milder symptoms, they can still in turn pass the infection on to more people.

Another problem is that people can be infected for 16 to 18 days after exposure before symptoms appear — which is how health officials traced the 13 cases to South Padre spring breakers. Additionally, nonspecific symptoms such as fever and headaches appear before the classic mumps symptoms of swollen glands are seen.

In some cases, symptoms can include swelling and pain in the testicles in men and ovaries in women.

“There is no treatment that works directly against the mumps,” Dr. Bowling said. “Once you have mumps, it’s basically supportive care, treating the symptoms. That’s why the vaccine is so important.”

People who think they have mumps should seek medical attention. Those suspected of having mumps should stay home while they’re contagious, which is five days after swollen glands occur. Mumps cases must be reported to health authorities by law.

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