Thousands of college students were vaccinated on Temple’s main campus last week, receiving doses of an immunity potion usually given to infants.
A sudden mumps outbreak has taken over the North Philadelphia campus. More than 100 people are known to be infected, and the number is estimated to grow. City health officials said they expect to be finding new cases at least through May.
You might be wondering how we ended up in this situation.
Strange as it may seem to be fighting off an illness that was eradicated in *checks notes* 1967, college campuses are breeding grounds for infectious diseases like this.
And it doesn’t necessarily matter if people got the vaccine as a baby or not — turns out its immunity wears off right around the age of an average student.
An overseas traveler, then kisses and drinks
The first person who’s infected with an illness that then leads to an outbreak is called the index case. Health Department officials have identified this individual for the Temple mumps outbreak, according to Dr. Caroline Johnson, acting deputy health commissioner for Philadelphia and a former infectious disease physician.
In this situation, the index case student had traveled internationally to a place where mumps was already circulating and brought it back with them. “It was imported,” Johnson said.
From that point, the entire student body was at risk.
When the CDC started tracking a resurgence of mumps in 2015, it found the disease most prominent on college campuses and other tight-knit communities. It’s what scientists would call the closed-community phenomenon: Close contact helps spread the airborne disease, and university students aren’t often the most, er, careful population.
“On college campuses, people go to parties, they share drinks, they kiss,” Johnson said. “It’s what college students do.”
If the average Philly resident was infected with the mumps, she said, they’d probably just spread it to their immediate family or household members. But with undegrads, all bets are off.
If someone lives in a dorm, Johnson said, “there’s the potential to expose hundreds and hundreds of people.”
The mumps vaccine only lasts 15 years
Temple’s administration teamed with Philly’s health department to offer two free, full-day clinics that drew lines stretching an entire city block.
Now that a full-fledged mumps outbreak has overtaken Owl Country, some have cast blame on the university. Up until this year, it seems Temple was the only Philadelphia college that did not explicitly require two doses of an MMR vaccine prior to enrollment.
However, health experts say blame for this current flare-up probably doesn’t land on the anti-vaxxer movement.
Most children get their first MMR vaccine before they’re 15 months old, and their second as a toddler (it’s recommended to be administered before age 6). The vaccine is considered solidly effective for about 10 to 15 years. That timeframe means that when kids are ready to head off to school, many immunizations have naturally worn off or are waning, said Deputy Health Commissioner Johnson.
The intersection of these factors — the perfect age for loss of immunity and the close quarters of college life — can easily breed an outbreak.
‘Can’t wait till summer’
Temple hasn’t yet scheduled any future vaccination clinics — officials are hoping they made enough of a dent with the first two.
In the meantime, isolated cases of the illness have popped up at other universities, like Penn and West Chester. Johnson said not to worry; she doesn’t anticipate it’ll spread on those campuses, or in the rest of Philadelphia.
“Now that it’s in the news quite a bit, everybody is looking,” Johnson said. “When they recognize a single case, they’re acting aggressively to try to prevent that spread.”
But at Temple, the contagion will probably continue, city health officials said. At least until May, when students are set free for summer break.
“It’s almost unheard of when they go home for the summer and reconvene in the fall, it will not start up again,” Johnson said. “The dispersal of students will ultimately interrupt that.”
Until then, public health officials eagerly await the warm weather. Johnson added: “We can’t wait till the summer!”