By Joel Renouf-Cooke

Students are driving the highest number of mumps outbreaks in a decade, a report by Public Health England has confirmed. In 2019 alone there were 5,042 lab-confirmed cases of the virus compared to 1,066 cases in 2018 – an increase of almost 400% – with just under half of the cases in young adults aged between 17 and 21. 

The virus, which can cause painful swelling in the neck and groin as well as a fever, can spread easily between person to person and can thrive in a university environment where halls of residence, clubs with student nights and libraries are all be hotbeds for transmission. 

According to PHE, nearly half of the confirmed cases of mumps in 2019 are from people who never received the MMR vaccine. These people, referred to as “Wakefield cohorts” – after the disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield, one of the first to suggest a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism – were children who were born in the late 90s and early 2000s and who are now old enough to attend college and university.

The increase in mumps is also reported to be parallel with an increase in confirmed cases of measles – after a World Health Organisation (WHO) report stated that just three years after eliminating the disease the UK is no longer ‘measles-free’. 

Statistics from NHS UK show that over 25,000 students who are unvaccinated started university in autumn of last year. The trend in mumps cases looks set to continue in 2020, with 546 confirmed cases in January alone, compared to 191 in the same period last year.

Mumps is a viral infection that used to be common in children before the introduction of the MMR vaccine. It is most recognisable by the painful swelling of the glands at the side of the face, giving a person with mumps a distinctive “hamster face” appearance. Other symptoms include headaches, joint pain and fever, which may develop a few days before the swelling.

The spread of the virus appears to be a national issue with universities across the UK reporting increasing frequency of outbreaks. An article in the University of East Anglia (UEA) student newspaper Concrete, stated in 2018 that “The University Medical Service (UMS) [had] sent a warning to students after having more than 18 confirmed cases of mumps at UEA in the last few months.” And University of Cambridge newspaper Varsity published an article last year stating that ‘Homerton students [had been] warned by their nurse that “there are cases of Mumps appearing in the Cambridge Student population”.’

Dr Vanessa Saliba, Consultant Epidemiologist at Public Health England (PHE), said:

“The best protection against mumps and its complications is to have two doses of the MMR vaccine[…]”

 She went on to stress the importance of the vaccine not being exclusively for children, stating:   

“We encourage all students and young people who may have missed out on their MMR vaccine in the past to contact their GP practice and get up to date as soon as possible[…] It’s never too late to catch up.”

Dr Saliba’s message was echoed by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock who said: “The rise in mumps cases is alarming and yet another example of the long-term damage caused by anti-vax information. Science proves that vaccines are the best form of defence against a host of potentially deadly diseases and are safer and more effective than ever before. Those who claim otherwise are risking people’s lives.  He went on to outline the Government health strategy, claiming:

“Our Vaccine Strategy will soon be published outlining how we will increase uptake, limit the spread of vaccine misinformation and ensure every child receives two doses of their MMR vaccination.”

Anti-Vaccination or vaccine hesitancy, is a belief that has existed almost since the invention of vaccinations themselves, dating back to the late 1700s when religious arguments against vaccination – or inoculation as it was called back then – were advancing. In a 1772 sermon entitled “The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation”, the English theologian Reverend Edmund Massey argued that diseases are sent by God to punish sin and that any attempt to prevent smallpox via inoculation is a “diabolical operation”. 

Although arguments against vaccinations have largely moved away from religious reasoning; almost 250 years later there still exist fringe groups that believe a range of anti-vaccination conspiracies such as the infamous ‘Wakefield papers’, however such theories have been largely debunked by modern science and a vast number of children’s health charities who stress the importance of vaccination in child health and safety.

The vaccine is free on the NHS to all adults and children who are not up to date with their two doses. More information about the vaccine and how you can get it is available on the NHS website or can be obtained by contacting your GP.

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