Millions of Britons unknowingly run the risk of debilitating mumps – because the vaccine given to children to protect against it can no longer work properly.
The viral infection, which causes a painful swelling in the face and groin, sweeps the land amid a ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances.
Last week, health chiefs sounded a warning when it turned out that more than 5,000 cases had been reported in England in 2019 – five times the number in the previous year. In January alone, the number is more than double that of last year.
Last week, health chiefs sounded a warning when it was revealed that more than 5,000 mumps were reported in England in 2019 – five times the number in the previous year. In January alone, the number is more than double that of last year
The increase is due to the vaccination shock of the late 1990s, prompted by a study that has now been discredited that linked the MMR prick in childhood – the triple injection that protects against measles, mumps and rubella – with autism in children.
Admission decreased from 92 percent of all children to just 80 percent in 2003 – although this has improved since then, with 90.3 percent now receiving a dose for their second birthday.
But the decline has resulted in the so-called “Wakefield cohort” – named after Andrew Wakefield, the disgraceful author of the research – with a non-vaccinated generation, many of whom are now old enough to visit colleges and universities.
This age group, who often lives in the neighborhood, runs the greatest risk of transmitting mumps virus.
Public Health England estimates that more than 25,000 young people who went to university in September did not have the MMR as children.
But while the fear of this group grows, another worrying trend has emerged. According to figures obtained by The Mail on Sunday, half of those infected received the MMR shot so far.
And although many believe the vaccine provides lifelong protection, research now shows that mumps immunity diminishes over time.
The perfect storm needed for an epidemic
Estimates vary, but some studies suggest that only 60 percent of those who receive the MMR shot if children remain fully protected against mumps after ten to 15 years. The vaccine is given in two doses, the first before the age of two and the second – a ‘booster’ – before a child starts primary school.
This means that thousands of people are at risk of mumps through late adolescence, just as they leave home and in many cases go to college.
The Wakefield cohort has again helped to retain the virus. The fact that the protection of the mumps vaccine naturally becomes weaker, feeds the current epidemic, experts say.
“The mumps of the MMR vaccine are less effective than the other components,” said Professor Helen Bedford, an expert in children’s health at University College London. “So if you are vaccinated as a young child, you may not be well protected by the time you turn 20.”
Jaffar Altaie, 27, was hit by mumps earlier this month – despite having had both MMR doses. He initially saw swelling in the gland on one side of his face, which got worse, before he spread to the other side
And although the emphasis was on teenagers who developed the disease, this newspaper has learned from dozens of young adults in their 20s and 30s who have also been affected. Jaffar Altaie, 27, was hit by mumps earlier this month – despite having had both MMR doses. He initially saw swelling in the gland on one side of his face, which got worse, before he spread to the other side.
“I knew someone who had had the mumps a few weeks earlier, so as soon as I saw the swelling in my neck, I suspected it right away,” says the PR director who lives in a shared house in West London.
“I locked myself in my room for about ten days. I went downstairs to fill my water bottle, but I would wear a face mask because I didn’t want to infect my housemates.
“I had a thick neck for eight or nine days, joint pain, headache, and occasional fever. Swallowing and chewing was also very difficult. “
Numerous similar cases have been reported online, with infected teenagers complaining via social media that their vaccines have not worked. But experts believe there might be a simple solution – another boost. “We should look at a third dose,” says Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, “especially in the event of outbreaks.
“Studies in the US show that it can have a clear impact on the incidence of mumps.”
The Wakefield report scared my parents
Luke Gardner, 21, from Northamptonshire, is well aware of the toll that the disease can take.
He is part of the “Wakefield cohort”. His parents chose not to vaccinate him as a baby, for fear of the alleged link with autism. He didn’t think much about it – until as a student he not only got mumps, but also terrifyingly rare rubella – also known as German measles.
Luke, who studied broadcasting journalism at Nottingham Trent University, says: “My parents only wanted the best for me. They were forced to get into a difficult situation, just like other families who fell for the scarred mongering. “
Luke Gardner, 21, from Northamptonshire, is well aware of the toll that the disease can take
He first caught rubella, which is characterized by a pink, spotty rash and fever, in February 2018. “At first I felt terrible because I was hanged,” says Luke. “But then I woke up and found this red rash all over my body.”
Rubella, such as mumps and measles, is caused by a virus.
Symptoms include painful joints, especially the fingers, wrists and knees, fever, a cough and runny nose, headache and a sore throat.
Most patients recover in peace, but if women contract it during pregnancy, it can cause birth defects and miscarriages. In 2015, the World Health Organization announced that the UK had eliminated rubella thanks to vaccination. This remains, but some countries report new cases – last week Ireland reported its first rubella infection in ten years.
Fortunately, Luke fully recovered after three weeks in bed. But then, just over a year later, in May 2019, he became unwell again.
“University officials have issued a message telling students that mumps were going around the campus,” Luke recalls. “I didn’t think much about it, but then I noticed a swelling in my neck – it got worse in the following days and hurt when I ate.
“Then I looked in the mirror and saw that one side of my face was huge. It was painful to touch and wash. I had to be very careful because one of my housemates hadn’t had the shot either.
“Being locked in my room was the worst.”
Shortly thereafter, Luke finally decided to take the shot – two decades after most other British.
He says: “I went to Europe and there was a huge outbreak of measles that I thought I knew about my happiness. I wouldn’t risk it. “
Luke says his parents look back on their decision not to have him vaccinated, and realize that it was wrong to do so.
“They felt guilty when I was sick because it could have been prevented,” he says. If they made the decision now, it would be different because they know the fears were wrong. But then they knew nothing else. They thought it was the best. “
Illness can harm a man’s fertility
MUMPS once affected around 80 percent of people at some point in their lives. But after the introduction of the MMR in 1988 it became much less common.
The infection mainly affects the salivary glands, which are just below the ears – causing the characteristic ‘hamster-like’ swelling of the face. But the disease can be incredibly painful, making eating, drinking, and swallowing a painful process. It is often accompanied by headache, joint pain and high temperature.
“Mumps probably won’t kill you, but it’s a nasty infection,” Prof Bedford explains.
Among men who catch it after puberty, one in four will experience swelling of the testicles and half will suffer permanent shrinkage known as testicular atrophy. It is estimated that one in ten sees a decrease in their sperm count, although experts say that this is rarely sufficiently marked to cause infertility. Similarly, one in 20 women who experience mumps after childhood will experience ovarian swelling, which may cause lower abdominal pain, illness and high temperature.
Viral meningitis – inflammation of the mucosa of the brain and spinal cord – is another possible complication, along with inflammation of the pancreas, which can cause diarrhea, stomach pain and loss of appetite. In extremely rare cases, the brain can even become infected – a potentially fatal condition known as encephalitis. There is no ‘cure’ or specific treatment: doctors usually advise bed rest and tell patients to drink a lot.
Mumps are transmitted in the same way as colds and flu – through contact with infected saliva droplets, which can be inhaled or picked up from surfaces and then transmitted through the mouth and nose.
So rooms of residence and shared accommodation, where students live cheek, are ideal conditions for transfer.
An infected person is most contagious a few days before symptoms occur and a few days afterwards.
Nearly two-thirds of the mumps in England last year were among 15 to 24-year-olds – which led some experts to suggest that a booster vaccine for teenagers might be the best way to stop the rising number of infections.
No age limit to be vaccinated
Since 2017, a third boost MMR dose has been offered to risk groups during outbreaks in the US. This also applies to students at universities where infection occurs.
There are indications that those taking the supplemental dose are much less likely to be infected.
Some have suggested that the age of 18 would be an ideal time, extending protection to young adulthood.
A third MMR shot was previously considered in the UK. In 2012, vaccine consultants investigated the possibility of offering a booster during adolescence or providing it during outbreaks – but concluded that it might not be cost effective.
Professor Jonathan Ball, an expert in viral infections at the University of Nottingham, believes that evidence now supports the introduction of a third vaccine.
“In an outbreak situation there is no real excuse for not offering it.
“I don’t think there’s a scientific reason why you wouldn’t do it.”
Nevertheless, the government’s independent advisory group, the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunization, says it does not intend to introduce an additional injection.
They claim that a booster would not provide long-term protection.
The two-dose MMR jab also means that if a mumps infection develops, the risk of complications is lower than in someone who has not been vaccinated.
Prof. Bedford adds: “Everyone must ensure that they have had two doses of MMR. There is no upper limit for getting those doses. “
Jaffar Altaie believes that having his two MMR doses made his illness much milder.
“I was really unlucky,” he says. “But my symptoms were not as bad as other people I know who were not vaccinated and then contracted.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Social Care said: “The current MMR vaccination course offers everyone 95 percent protection against mumps and it remains as effective as ever.
“It is important that every child receives two doses of his MMR vaccination and anyone who is not sure whether he is fully covered should contact his doctor.”
You are contagious before you know you have it
The most recognizable sign of mumps is the ‘hamster face’, caused by the salivary glands under the swelling of the ears.
But it can take up to three weeks for this to develop after patients become infected with the virus. And a person is highly contagious a few days before the symptoms develop, putting others at risk.
Most patients develop flu-like symptoms before swelling occurs – including joint pain, high temperatures, and headache. General practitioners can diagnose mumps by looking at the position of the tonsils, checking the temperature and assessing any swelling.
They must then inform your local health protection team who will arrange a saliva test to confirm the diagnosis.
Although there is no cure for mumps, the infection usually resolves within two weeks.
Sufferers are no longer highly contagious a few days after the symptoms develop.