June 3, 2009

Mumps On The Rise In Europe

Health experts said Wednesday that mumps has made a comeback in parts of Europe in the past year with outbreaks in Britain, the Balkans and Moldova.

Health officials said that in England and Wales, cases of the disease have doubled to about 1,700 in the past three months, compared with the last three months of 2008.

Kari Johansen, a vaccine expert at the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that several European countries have reported outbreaks in the last year, from 50 cases in Sweden to thousands of infections in Balkans.

Many cases in Britain were older teenagers and young adults, which are too old to have been immunized when the routine mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine was widely introduced.

Just 12 percent of the sufferers in Britain were younger than 19, when the two-dose MMR shot became universal.

"As the susceptible group is quite large, we expected to see high numbers of cases to continue over the next few years," Mary Ramsay, an immunization expert at Britain's Health Protection Agency, said in an email statement.

She said that the large number of people in institutions such as universities allowed the disease to spread more easily.
Mumps is a viral disease that causes mild fever and swollen glands.  Severe cases cause deafness, testicular inflammation and encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain.

Experts say that the virus can sometimes mutate, so that people who have had only one or two doses of vaccines can still be vulnerable.

Doubling up on vaccine doses is supposed to be 88 to 95 percent effective, but a lot of countries that provide the inoculation do not give two doses or have not been doing so for as long as countries such as the U.S.

Johansen said that although many people might have missed the MMR shot due to their age, the virus was so changeable that even two doses of the old vaccine is not always enough to prevent outbreaks in places with good vaccination coverage like Sweden.

She added that a third dose would boost the body's immune response and might provide what was known as cross-protection against mutated strains, but stressed tests in people would be needed to confirm this.

"Scientifically, researchers are looking at the possibility of a third dose of MMR," she said in a telephone interview.

Health officials said that the last major mumps outbreak was in the U.S., where over 6,000 people became infected in 2006 and many more would have been affected if not for wide vaccination coverage.

However, the mumps was not tied to fears the MMR vaccine could cause autism.  Health Experts say that these worries are unfounded, even though many parents in Britain and other countries have refused to have their children vaccinated.


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