Experts: Break may benefit PSU

Weeklong hiatus could help community fight mumps outbreak

Little more than a month after an infectious virus was first identified on the Penn State University Park campus, many students will travel this week from State College to their hometowns or vacation destinations for spring break.

Some may be concerned the break will allow the virus to infect other communities. But local medical experts said the weeklong pause may be beneficial to the densely populated college, where conditions are favorable for the illness to spread.

In late January, mumps — a viral illness — was identified on Penn State’s campus, university spokesman L. Reidar Jensen said.

Since the first University Park case was identified Jan. 29, experts have investigated 22 suspected, probable or confirmed mumps cases, Jensen said in an email early last week.

By Friday, a notice on the Penn State University Health Services website upped the number of suspected cases from 22 to 27.

“Those with confirmed cases have been isolated in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Pennsylvania Department of Health protocols and recommendations,” Jensen said.

That includes several people who have left the campus and are recovering at home in isolation, he said.

Highly infectious

That type of isolation is something local doctor Kathleen Sweeney experienced firsthand decades ago.

“I had mumps as a kid,” she said. “I remember I missed my birtday party because you had to be quarantined so you didn’t spread it around.

“I just watched all the kids in the neighborhood playing outside,” continued Sweeney, who is now the director of osteopathic medicine education and the assistant director of family medicine residency at UPMC Altoona.

Mumps is a highly infectious disease that can be spread through direct contact or respiratory spit droplets, Sweeney said.

That means densely populated areas, such as college dormitories, provide ideal conditions for the virus to spread, she said.

Early signs of mumps include fever, headache, muscle pain, fatigue and loss of appetite. Swelling of salivary glands typically follows within 48 hours, Sweeney said, explaining swelling can last up to 10 days.

However, mumps, which has an average incubation period of 16 to 18 days, can be spread even before the onset of symptoms, Sweeney said.

“Individuals with mumps are typically infectious from three days before until nine days after onset of symptoms,” she said.

On Thursday, state Department of Health spokesman Nate Wardle gave an update on Penn State’s mumps cases, noting there have now been at least 10 laboratory confirmed mumps cases on campus. That number is up from six earlier in the week.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Health is continuing to work with Penn State University and University Health Services about the ongoing mumps virus outbreak on the University Park campus,” he said.

Spring break

Classes on the Penn State campus are on hiatus this week.

The university’s website lists its undergraduate population at 46,000 students. Many of them will travel this week away from Centre County to their hometowns or vacation destination.

In the days before the break, University Health Services issued a warning to students via its website.

“With spring break approaching, students are urged to closely monitor their personal health and avoid sharing food and drinks or engaging in drinking games or other activities that may result in saliva exposure,” it reads.

From a medical standpoint, a break from college activities during the mumps outbreak could have negative or positive results, said area doctor Robert Sullivan, an Altoona-based infectious disease specialist.

“Well there are some bad things about that,” he said. “If they are infectious, they could be spreading it to people at home.”

But moving infected people away from crowded dormitories and classrooms could drastically reduce the spread of mumps among those in the college community, he said. Sweeney agreed.

“I think it’s better for suppressing the spread,” Sweeney said. “I think kids should go home if they’ve been exposed.”

Serious complications

Often, those who are infected with mumps will overcome the illness on their own with rest and care, Sullivan said.

Still, there are some serious medical complications that can stem from the infection, he said.

Among complications, damage to reproductive organs was high on Sullivan’s list.

Testicular swelling, Sweeney said, is the most common complication of mumps, occurring in 15 to 30 percent of postpubertal men who contract the virus. Severe swelling can result in infertility, she said.

Other serious complications include meningitis, encephalitis and deafness, Sweeney said.

And each person infected increases the likelihood of complications, Sullivan said.

“You’re going to see more people that have complications as you see more people with mumps,” he said.

Vaccination paramount

In recent years, the number of mumps cases locally has been minimal, Sullivan said.

“I haven’t really seen much mumps because the vaccine is really tremendously effective,” he said. “If you respond to the vaccine, then you are supposed to develop antibodies to make you immune to that disease.”

But that could change as an increasing amount of parents choose against having their children vaccinated — a result of widely disproven but lasting beliefs that vaccines can cause developmental delays in children.

A few years ago, the state Department of Health reported that a low number of public-school kindergartners in Blair County had been properly vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella, according to a Mirror article from 2015. Similar circumstances persist elsewhere across the country.

It took Sweeney only seconds to confirm she suspects a correlation between a decline in vaccinations and a rise in cases of mumps and other infectious diseases.

Though it is unlikely, Sullivan said it is not impossible to get mumps even after receiving a vaccination.

“What’s happening is that as they are getting older, they lose their immunity,” he said.

All the same, high numbers of vaccinated people can drastically limit the size, duration and spread of mumps, Sweeney said, adding those who have not been vaccinated are much more susceptible.

“Because of the complications … it is so important to vaccinate against mumps,” she said. “Most people don’t want to be infertile or deaf.”

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