Search Is On for Source of Iowa Mumps Epidemic

A 1963 image of a little girl displaying jaws swollen by mumps.

The mumps epidemic in Midwestern states is the first in the United States in 20 years. Here, a 1963 image of a little girl with jaws swollen by mumps. Herb Snitzer//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Herb Snitzer//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

A mumps epidemic is expanding in the Midwest. It's the country's largest outbreak of the disease in almost two decades. Most of the cases are college students, who have been vaccinated against the childhood disease.

In a typical year, Iowa usually records about five cases of mumps, with no more than 300 cases for the entire country. But Iowa's now counting more than 600 confirmed and suspected cases. At least 120 other cases are under investigation in Nebraska, Kansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois. Federal health officials are worried that two infected air travelers may have spread it as far as the nation's capital, although there are no cases outside the Midwest so far.

A big question is where the outbreak come from. Dr. Jane Seward of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta says so far, nobody knows. But it's been brewing since midwinter.

"Probably the first cases occurred as early as December. In January, there were more cases," says Seward. "And I think initially the first cases weren't recognized clinically, which is not surprising. Physicians haven't seen mumps in a long time."

What's the Mumps?

Formerly one of the most common childhood diseases, mumps is practically nonexistent in the United States today, due to a successful push for routine vaccination in children that began in the 1970s. Mumps is still a significant threat in developing countries.

Mumps is caused by a virus and transmitted in respiratory drops and saliva. It's spread through coughing and sneezing, touching contaminated surfaces, or sharing utensils or drinking glasses.

Generic Symptoms

The disease's early flu-like symptoms — muscle pains, headache, fever, lack of energy and lack of appetite — won't clue you in that you have the mumps. But they're often followed by a tell-tale sign — a painful swelling of glands at the base of the jaw.

These days, mumps is rarely more than a moderate illness, but there can be complications, such as inflammation of testicles in men and inflammation of ovaries or breasts in women. In some cases, mumps can lead to inflammation of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) and permanent deafness.

Prevention and Treatment

There is no specific treatment for mumps, other than trying to ease the pain of symptoms.

The vaccine, usually packaged with vaccines for measles and rubella and given twice during childhood, is not 100 percent effective, but has done a good job in the United States of keeping outbreaks to a minimum.

Adults who didn't get two doses as a child are advised to get revaccinated, especially college students, people traveling internationally and women of childbearing age.

Potentially Silent Contagion

Symptoms, if they do appear, usually pop up about two weeks after exposure. But people are contagious before symptoms show up, making it easy to unknowingly spread the disease. After symptoms develop, people are contagious for about four to nine days.

Current Outbreak's Path

Infectious disease investigators are looking for people who traveled on nine flights. If you flew on Northwest or American Airlines between March 26, 2006 and April 2, 2006, check this list to see if there was an infected person on your flight.

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