In the face of an expanding mumps outbreak on Temple's campus—and in increase in outbreaks of measles around the country—Dean Laura Siminoff writes on the importance of proper vaccination and the public health community's role in dispelling myths.
As you are no doubt aware, over the past few weeks Temple University has experienced an outbreak of mumps, an infection that presents like the flu, with painful swelling in glands on the face and along the jawline. For those over the age of 18, mumps is particularly dangerous, especially for those who have a weakened immune system caused by other conditions, treatments, or genetic disorders.
This is part of a worrying trend: Over 150 cases of mumps have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this year alone, along with more than 200 measles cases, with outbreaks in Washington, New York, Texas, and California, among others, but vaccination exemptions have steadily increased in many parts of the country. Similarly, last year’s flu season was the deadliest on record, but only 45 percent of adults are vaccinated nationwide.
A recent map of areas in the U.S. where MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccination rates fall below 90 percent reveals that this is often a phenomenon particular to more affluent communities, where children are more likely to go on to college.
Which brings us back to the mumps outbreak at Temple. We should all be concerned that an outbreak of the mumps, a disease that should be virtually unheard of today, is happening in the heart of a major American city. The MMR vaccine series is largely effective at preventing these illnesses, but it is imperative that everyone receive the full course of the vaccine if they are medically able.
In the United States, the majority of outbreaks result from people who refuse vaccination (mostly for their children) for a number of reasons that are unfounded. The idea that the development of autism spectrum disorder is linked to vaccinations has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked. However, the myth lives on.
There is also a misconception that vaccines have already fully eliminated the highly contagious diseases they are designed to prevent, such as polio. This myth is equally dangerous. Even in the 21st century, it is a critical public health priority to continue educating the public on the need for vaccination, including the fact that some vaccines need to be administered multiple times or across the lifespan. Without proper and widespread vaccination, there is a very real risk that these diseases can again appear.
There are always small risks to any medical procedure, medicine, or vaccine. However, the risks attendant to illnesses such as smallpox, polio, measles and mumps far outweigh any of the smaller risks of vaccination. Indeed, those of us who have experienced what some have termed ‘minor childhood’ diseases know how dangerous and unpleasant they can be. As someone who had the measles as a child (just a year before the vaccine became available), I can attest to the fact that it was a very serious illness.
As of this week, Temple has experienced more than 50 probable cases of mumps. Given the contagious nature of the infection, this number is likely to grow. In response, the university has amended its policy to include mandatory MMR vaccination before students begin at Temple, and I applaud this decision. This is a change that I have championed, joined by the leadership at Temple University Health System and Employee and Student Health Services. It is unfortunate that an outbreak had to occur before the university took action.
As public health researchers, practitioners, and advocates, we should make it a priority to push back against misinformation and promote effective preventive measures supported by research.
As the past month has shown, the health of our students and our entire community depends on it.
In good health,
Dean Laura Siminoff