You CAN get mumps even if you've had the MMR vaccine

You CAN get mumps even if you’ve had the MMR vaccine: Why every 18-year-old should have a booster jab to prevent life-changing side effects

  • Figures show In 2019 over 5,000 cases of mumps were reported in England
  • The number of cases in 2020 will be significantly higher, early indications show
  • Experts say the viral infection is sweeping the nation because of a ‘perfect storm’
  • The surge is being blamed on fear spread in the 1990s over the MMR vaccine 

Millions of Britons could be unknowingly at risk of debilitating mumps – because the vaccine that’s given to children to protect against it can stop working properly.

The viral infection, which causes an agonising swelling in the face and groin, is sweeping the country amid a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions.

Last week, health chiefs sounded an alert when it was revealed that, in 2019, more than 5,000 cases had been reported in England – five times the number in the year before. Cases in January alone are more than double the figure for last year.

Last week, health chiefs sounded an alert when it was revealed that, in 2019, more than 5,000 cases of mumps had been reported in England – five times the number in the year before. Cases in January alone are more than double the figure for last year

The surge has been blamed on the vaccine scare of the late 1990s, prompted by a now discredited study which linked the childhood MMR jab – the triple-shot which protects against measles, mumps and rubella – with autism in children.

Uptake plummeted from 92 per cent of all children, to a low of just 80 per cent in 2003 – although this has since improved, with 90.3 per cent now receiving a dose before their second birthday.

But the drop has resulted in the so-called ‘Wakefield cohort’ – named after Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced author of the study – with an unvaccinated generation, many of who are now old enough to attend colleges and universities.

This age group, often living in close proximity, are most at risk of transmitting the mumps virus.

Public Health England estimate more than 25,000 youngsters who started university in September had not had the MMR as children.

But while fears for this group grow, another worrying trend has emerged. According to figures obtained by The Mail on Sunday, half of those infected so far were, in fact, given the MMR jab.

And, while many believe the vaccine offers life-long protection, research now shows that immunity to mumps wanes over time.

The perfect storm needed for an epidemic

Estimates vary, but some studies suggest that just 60 per cent those who are given the MMR jab as children remain completely 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 begins primary school.

This means many thousands could be at risk of mumps by late adolescence, just as they leave home and, in many cases, start university.

The Wakefield cohort has helped the virus take hold again. The fact that mumps vaccine protection naturally weakens, is fuelling the current epidemic, say experts.

‘The mumps bit of the MMR vaccine is less effective than the other components,’ says Professor Helen Bedford, a child public health expert at University College London. ‘So if you are vaccinated as a young child, by the time you get to 20 you may not be so well-protected.’

Jaffar Altaie, 27, was struck down with mumps earlier this month – despite having had both his MMR doses. He initially noticed swelling in the gland on one side of his face, which grew worse, before spreading to the other side

And, while the focus has been on teens developing the illness, this newspaper has learned of dozens of young adults in their 20s and 30s who have also been affected. Jaffar Altaie, 27, was struck down with mumps earlier this month – despite having had both his MMR doses. He initially noticed swelling in the gland on one side of his face, which grew worse, before spreading to the other side.

‘I knew someone who’d had mumps a few weeks before, so as soon as I noticed the swelling in my neck, I suspected it straight away,’ says the PR executive 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 up, but I’d wear a face mask because I didn’t want to infect my housemates.

‘I had a big neck for eight or nine days, as well as joint pain, a headache and an occasional fever. Swallowing and chewing was also really hard.’

Scores of similar cases have been reported online, with infected teenagers taking to social media to complain their vaccines haven’t worked. But experts believe there may be a simple solution – another booster jab. ‘We should be looking at a third dose,’ says Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, ‘particularly where there are outbreaks.

‘Studies in the US show that it can have a marked impact on the incidence of mumps.’

Wakefield report scared my parents

Luke Gardner, 21, from Northamptonshire, is well aware of the toll the illness can take.

He is part of the ‘Wakefield cohort’. His parents chose not to vaccinate him as baby, fearing the alleged link with autism. He didn’t give it much thought – until as a student he contracted not only mumps, but frighteningly rare rubella – also known as German measles, as well.

Luke, who studied broadcast journalism at Nottingham Trent University, says: ‘My parents only wanted the best for me. They were forced into a difficult situation, just like other families who fell for the scaremongering.’

Luke Gardner, 21, from Northamptonshire, is well aware of the toll the illness can take

First he caught rubella, which is characterised by a pink, spotty rash and a fever, in February 2018. ‘At first I put feeling terrible down to being hung over,’ says Luke. ‘But then I woke up and found this red rash all over my whole body.’

Rubella, like mumps and measles, is caused by a virus.

Symptoms include aching joints, particularly the fingers, wrists and knees, a fever, a cough and runny nose, headache and a sore throat.

Most patients recover with rest, but if women contract it when pregnant it can cause birth defects and miscarriages. In 2015, the World Health Organisation announced that the UK had eliminated rubella, thanks to vaccination. This still stands, but some countries are reporting new cases – last week Ireland reported its first rubella infection in a decade.

Thankfully, after three weeks in bed, Luke made a full recovery. But then, just over a year later, in May 2019, he became unwell again.

‘University officials issued a message telling students that mumps was going around the campus,’ Luke recalls. ‘I didn’t think much of it, but then I noticed a swelling in my neck – it got worse over the following days and was agonising when I ate.

‘Then I looked in the mirror and saw one side of my face was massive. It was painful to touch and wash. I had to be really careful because one of my housemates hadn’t had the jab either.

‘Being locked away in my room was the worst part.’

Soon afterwards, Luke decided to finally have the jab – two decades after most other Britons.

He says: ‘I was going to Europe and there was a massive outbreak of measles which, I thought knowing my luck, I’d get. I wasn’t going to risk it.’

Luke says his parents look back on their decision not to have him vaccinated, and realise it was the wrong thing to do.

‘They felt guilty when I was ill, because it could have been prevented,’ he says. If they were to make the decision now it would be different because they know the fears were wrong. But at the time they didn’t know any different. They thought it was for the best.’

Illness can harm a man’s fertility

MUMPS once struck around 80 per cent of people at some point in their life. But, after the introduction of the MMR in 1988, it became far less common.

The infection primarily affects the salivary glands, which sit just under the ears – causing the characteristic ‘hamster-like’ swelling of the face. But the illness can be incredibly painful, making eating, drinking and swallowing an agonising process. It is often accompanied by headaches, joint pain and a high temperature.

‘Mumps is unlikely to 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 suffer permanent shrinkage known as testicular atrophy. An estimated one in ten will see a drop in their sperm count, though experts say this is rarely marked enough to cause infertility. Similarly, one in 20 females who contract mumps after childhood will experience swelling of the ovaries, which can cause lower abdominal pain, sickness and a high temperature.

Viral meningitis – inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord – is another possible complication, along with inflammation of the pancreas, which can cause diarrhoea, stomach pain and loss of appetite. In extremely rare cases, the brain may 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 plenty of fluids.

Mumps is transmitted in the same way as colds and flu – through contact with infected droplets of saliva, which can be inhaled or picked up from surfaces and then transferred through the mouth and nose.

So halls of residence and shared accommodation, where students live cheek by jowl, are ideal conditions for transmission.

An infected person is most contagious a few days before any symptoms develop and for a few days afterwards.

Almost two-thirds of mumps cases in England last year were among 15 to 24-year-olds – which has led some experts to suggest a booster vaccine for teens could be the best way to halt the spiralling numbers of infections.

No upper age limit to get vaccinated

Since 2017, a third booster MMR dose has been offered during outbreaks in the US to at-risk groups. This includes students at universities where infection is rife.

Evidence suggests those who have the top-up dose are at far less risk of infection.

Some have suggested the age of 18 would be an ideal time, extending protection into young adulthood.

A third MMR jab has been considered in the UK before. In 2012, vaccine advisors examined the possibility of offering a booster during adolescence, or providing it during outbreaks – but concluded it may not be cost-effective.

Professor Jonathan Ball, an expert in viral infections at the University of Nottingham, believes evidence does now support the introduction of a third vaccine.

‘In an outbreak situation, there’s no real excuse not to offer it.

‘I don’t think there’s any scientific rationale as to why you wouldn’t do it.’

Despite this, the independent Government advisory group, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, says it has no plans to introduce an extra jab.

They argue a booster would not give long-lasting protection.

The two-dose MMR jab also means that if a mumps infection does develop, the chances of complications are lower than in someone not vaccinated.

Prof Bedford adds: ‘Everybody needs to make sure they’ve had two doses of MMR. There’s no upper age limit for getting those doses.’

Jaffar Altaie believes that having his two MMR doses made his illness much milder.

‘I felt really unlucky,’ he says. ‘But my symptoms weren’t as bad as other people I know who’ve not been vaccinated, and then caught it.’

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ‘The current MMR vaccination course provides everyone with 95 per cent protection against mumps and it remains as effective as ever.

‘It is important every child receives two doses of their MMR vaccination and anyone who is unsure whether they are fully covered should contact their GP.’

You’re infectious before you know you’ve got it

The most recognisable sign of mumps is the ‘hamster face’, caused by the salivary glands below the ears swelling.

But it can take up to three weeks for this to develop after patients have become infected with the virus. And a person is highly contagious a few days prior to symptoms developing, putting others at risk.

Most patients develop flu-like signs before the swelling occurs – including joint pain, high temperatures and headaches. GPs can diagnose mumps by looking at the position of the tonsils, checking temperature and assessing any swelling.

They should then notify your local health protection team who will arrange for a saliva test to confirm diagnosis.

While there’s no cure for mumps, the infection usually passes within two weeks.

Sufferers are no longer highly infectious a few days after symptoms develop.


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