A massive education campaign led by the county health department aims to increase awareness and prevention of mumps, a contagious disease caused by a virus that is currently present in the Rio Grande Valley.
Last week, a case of mumps was found at Bryan Elementary School, which is part of the Mission Consolidated Independent School District. When the discovery was made at the campus, students were sent home with a letter detailing how the district was handling the sanitation of the school and phone calls were made that same evening.
According to Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Director Eduardo Olivarez, keeping the public informed in this way is one of the ways to keep the virus contained.
“Of all the cases [in the county], over half of them are between 20 and 30 years old, which is odd,” Olivarez said. “We’re talking with the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the Department of State Health Services, and we can’t figure it out. It’s not a new strain or a wild strain, it’s genotype ‘G’ for general mumps. Across the country it’s all the same age group, so we don’t think it was a bad lot of vaccines because it’s so spread out.”
As of 10 a.m. Monday morning, 46 confirmed cases of the mumps have been diagnosed in Hidalgo County since the end of March/beginning of April.
“Confirmation is done by a combination of laboratory testing and physical symptoms identified by a physician,” Olivarez said. “We have reported cases in pretty much every major community in Hidalgo County, so this is no longer in just a concentrated area.”
According to a recent press release from the department, “mumps is a contagious virus that causes fever, muscle aches, headache, loss of appetite and swelling of the salivary glands, which can include the jaw and neck area.” Other glands in adults can be swollen or tender, and adult males “may experience swollen or tender testicles.”
“It is not a deadly disease,” Olivarez said. “It’s a nuisance and an economic illness because you may be out of work or school for as much as a week. Can anyone afford to be out of school or work for a week?”
There are cases in Mission, McAllen, Pharr, Weslaco, San Juan and Edinburg. The mumps virus is spread mostly through airborne spittle between people in close social contact.
“The good thing is of those 46 cases, probably less than 8 as of printing may still be contagious, but all the other cases are no longer contagious,” Olivarez said. “But they’re isolated, they are staying home from work or school.”
Olivarez said that currently, there are ten pending cases that the county is still waiting to hear results from. He brought up the R0 (pronounced “R naught”) measurement, which is the number of people one sick people will infect.
The R0 for mumps states that for every one person who contracts the virus, 10 more will be infected. The values for Hepatitis C and Ebola is 2, for HIV and SARS is 4, and measles is 18.
“Everything started at the end of March/first of April,” Olivarez said. “Incubation is from 14 to 21 days, so if a person came in contact with an infected person, but their immune system was weakened, even if they are vaccinated the virus still attaches to them. It will take 14 to 21 days to show symptoms.”
Once a person starts showing symptoms, they become infectious to others. Symptoms will show for a week or less, and when a person is no longer symptomatic they are no longer infectious.
“I’m expecting a third wave, which is probably going to be right about now,” Olivarez said. “Towards the end of this month, I’m expecting more cases to come up just because of exposure. I’m expecting another one at the end of June.”
Olivarez said the high vaccination rate in the county has prevented the virus from spreading faster and kept it more contained. 46 cases out of over an estimated 1 million people is less than .01 percent.
“We have an average vaccination rate [ages 6 to 19 in Hidalgo County] of 85 to 90 percent vaccinated,” Olivarez said. “That’s a high number, and it’s been like that for several years.”
If born after 1982, a person should have been vaccinated twice. If born prior to that year, they were only administered one mumps vaccination, and may want to look into getting a booster.
“People who work in the medical field and first responders need to consider getting a booster,” Olivarez said. “They need to speak with their physicians to determine if they are eligible.”
Olivarez said that people with a weakened immune system or women who are pregnant should not get the booster because it may complicate things.
“They need to consult their doctor because there’s a group of those people who can benefit from getting some protection,” Olivarez said. “But there’s a group of those people that cannot get it. Only your physician can guide you.”
People who cannot get the vaccine due to their weakened immune system rely on the community to remain vaccinated so the virus can remain contained. The current outbreak of mumps and measles in the country has been attributed to the anti-vaccination movement.
“Vaccination is key,” Olivarez said. “A lot of the anti-vaxxers’ movement is stemmed from misinformation.
Vaccinations have kept it from getting worse. If there were no vaccinations, more people would be getting it.”
The department also stressed that the current spread of the virus has not come from any immigration issues in Hidalgo County. They have been in weekly contact with Customs and Border Patrol, who have seen one outbreak in a Cameron County detention facility but none in Hidalgo.
“I average two to three mumps cases every year, usually found in children,” Olivarez said. “This is the first time we have a public outbreak in many years, probably over 15, 20 years.”
Olivarez said the medical and school communities have been extremely focused on the issue, and several reported cases have come back negative thanks to the awareness of these entities.
“They have been so good at assessing it,” Olivarez said. “We’ve gotten more negative results than positive, but that’s a good thing. I’ve got to thank the medical community, UTRGV, STC, and the school districts for being so diligent.”
The mumps outbreak will be considered finished after the county goes 42 days without a case.