Mumps outbreak in Canada: questions & answers

Medcan physicians encourage updating vaccines after mumps outbreak in Toronto and Medicine Hat

Clusters of mumps cases in Ontario and Alberta cities, as well as within the NHL, have public officials reminding all Canadians to check that their vaccinations are up to date. We checked in with physicians at Medcan to find out what we need to know.

In Toronto, over 20 cases of mumps have been confirmed among people 18 to 35 years of age who frequented bars in the city’s west end. Alberta Health Services has confirmed 9 cases of the mumps, all involving hockey players, coaches and those close to members of the team. NHL hockey players in Vancouver and Minnesota have also recently been diagnosed.

The majority of these cases were not immunized or under-immunized. While the risk to the general public is low, the symptoms are severe enough to warrant prevention and public health awareness.

“The best prevention against the mumps is proper vaccination,” says Dr. Jason Abrams, Associate Medical Director at Medcan. “The more people that are properly vaccinated in the community, the less chance of an outbreak in that community.  This describes the concept of “herd immunity” – when people who get vaccinated properly also help to protect the other members of their community who are not eligible for the vaccination for medical reasons.”

How is mumps spread?

Mumps is an acute infectious disease caused by mumps virus. Mumps is spread from person to person through coughing, sneezing, and coming into contact with a person’s saliva by sharing drinks or utensils, food or water bottles, or by kissing. A major factor contributing to outbreaks is being in a crowded environment, such as attending the same class, playing on the same sports team or living in a dormitory with a person who has mumps. 

What are the symptoms?

Signs and symptoms of mumps include swelling and pain in one or more salivary glands (sides of cheeks and jaw), low grade fever, muscle aches and pains, headache, loss of appetite, fatigue and anorexia. These symptoms can last up to 10 days. Inflammation of testes occurs in 20-30% of post-pubertal male cases and inflammation of the ovaries in 5% of post-pubertal female cases. Mumps infection in the first trimester of pregnancy may increase the rate of spontaneous abortion. Severe symptoms include deafness in an estimated rate of 0.5 to 5 per 100,000 reported mumps cases.

What is the best prevention?

  • Get vaccinated: since the introduction of the vaccine, the incidence of mumps has decreased by over 90% in Canada. Check your immunization record to make sure you and your family members born in 1970 or later are up to date with 2 shots of the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine. If you are unsure, check with your physician or simply ask for a second shot. It is not necessary to check your blood levels first.
  • Do not share drinking glasses or water bottles with others.

Who is most at risk?

  • The un-vaccinated or the under-vaccinated (those who are behind in their vaccine and haven’t received the booster shot). For example, individuals born after 1970 should have two doses of the MMR vaccine as part of their regular vaccination regimen.
  • The elderly, infants, the sick and immuno-compromised people are all particularly at risk when the population is under-vaccinated, since herd immunity (protection created when the masses are protected) is weakened.
  • Regarding younger children: Current Ontario guidelines recommend the first MMR vaccination at 12 months and the second one, which is combined with the second chicken pox vaccination and called MMRV, given between ages 4-6.

“I prefer to provide this second vaccination closer to age 4 because over the past few years there have been sporadic outbreaks of disease, primarily affecting those either never vaccinated or having had only one shot,” says Dr. Janice Weiss, Director of the Child and Youth Program at Medcan.

Other key points

  • If you are travelling, ensure your immunizations are up-to-date before you leave, including family members travelling with you.
  • Call your doctor if you have symptoms of mumps infection, or if you have been in contact with someone who has mumps. Tell your doctor that you think you have mumps before going to the doctor’s office. This will allow the doctor to prepare for your visit and protect other patients.
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