The mumps is usually a mild childhood disease affecting primarily the salivary glands. It is caused by a virus and is most common in children between five and nine years of age, although it can affect adults. In the latter case symptoms may be more severe. Acquiring the infection during the first trimester of pregnancy is associated with spontaneous abortion.
Most people infected with the mumps virus recover within two weeks. However, on rare occasions, the disease can lead to hearing loss, male sterility, miscarriage, meningitis (in up to 15% of cases), swelling of the ovaries, or inflammation of the pancreas. It can also cause inflammation of the brain – which is sometimes fatal – but this is exceptionally rare.
So while mumps is usually not a very serious disease, it is certainly unpleasant and carries the risk of more severe manifestations especially when caught after childhood or during early pregnancy.
What treatments are available?
Bad news: there is no specific treatment for mumps. Symptoms can be relieved using drugs such as paracetamol and some people ease discomfort by using ice or heat to soothe their pain.
Is it preventable?
Good news: Yes. Immunisation programmes across Europe include the combined Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine which also provides protection against mumps. The best way to avoid illness is to have two doses of the vaccine, as recommended by your doctor.
Increased immunisation rates in recent decades have had a major impact on reducing the number of cases of mumps in the developed world.
Are the MMR vaccines safe?
Yes, they are.
The WHO has indeed collected the best available evidence to support the safety of the mumps vaccine. Health authorities and professional medical bodies recommend that children have two doses of the MMR vaccine.
In recent years, there have been some unfounded concerns about the safety of the MMR vaccine. In particular, you may have heard claims that the MMR vaccine is somehow connected with autism. This notion was based on one thoroughly debunked study published in 1998. That research paper has since been withdrawn and its lead author, Dr Andrew Wakefield has lost his medical license.
Study after study has given the vaccine a clean bill of health and there is no evidence whatsoever linking the MMR vaccine with developmental disorders like autism. Health authorities in charge of the safety of vaccines and medicines – such as the European Medicines Agency – support this position.
What we do know is that mumps is at best a source of avoidable discomfort and at worst a life-threatening virus.