A few weeks ago I was finishing up my post on SIDS and facing the prospect of writer’s block. I just wasn’t sure what to write after the SIDS post was finished. And then Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins developed the mumps after receiving an MMR booster before the Sochi Olympics. Suddenly, my writer’s block was solved!
I have actually heard people say that we vaccinate for mumps because people used to die from it. This is, of course, a display of ignorance. (The irony is that those of us who choose not to vaccinate are usually referred to as being uneducated or gullible no matter how sound our reasoning and research and those who defend vaccination are considered educated and sensible no matter how uninformed their stance is.) Obviously, Sidney Crosby and his fellow hockey players, referees and coaches who have been infected are all alive. Mumps is generally not deadly or even complicated unless you happen to be very immunocompromised. Even complications such as aseptic meningitis are usually mild with a good prognosis.
We keep hearing statistics that say that before the vaccine was introduced there were 200,000 cases of mumps every year and then the disease quickly dropped off after the advent of mumps vaccination. OK, so there were 200,000 cases. But why in and of itself is this a public health catastrophe? The answer is that it really isn’t a public health catastrophe.
Much has been said about the possibility of orchitis (infection of the testicles) in teenage boys and men, however, infection is unilateral most of the time, meaning that it only infects one testicle, allowing a man to still carry plenty of sperm to have children. In rare cases, fertility can be impaired, but sterility is extraordinarily rare. A condition called oophoritis (benign inflammation of the ovaries) occurs in about 5% of women and post-pubertal girls, though it does not affect fertility. Mumps during pregnancy can increase the risk of spontaneous abortion. But isn’t this why vaccination is so crucial, you say? We need to protect the adult population because these diseases can have more severe effects when they strike adult populations.
Actually, this is why it might be in the public’s best interest not to vaccinate for mumps.
Before vaccination was introduced en masse, mumps was a childhood disease. People would usually get it as young children (before puberty increased the chances of more complications) and then have life-long immunity. Trying to prevent children from getting the mumps actually opens them up to more complications later on and deprives them of life-long immunity that would protect them once they are adults. This is especially crucial when the vaccine lacks efficacy. Yep, this latest high profile outbreak of mumps has brought to light some rather uncomfortable truths and accusations about the MMR shot, especially when a star hockey player gets sick after receiving a booster shot.
Public health officials have now admitted that the vaccine is only about 88% effective- which sounds high until you realize that out of 100 vaccinated individuals, 10-15 will develop mumps. That’s not the very small percentage that the CDC has claimed for vaccine failure. Even more disturbing are the allegations from former Merck employees that Merck manipulated the results of its studies on the MMR vaccine efficacy to make the vaccine seem more effective than it actually is. In fact, in 2006 there were 6,500 cases of mumps reported in a highly vaccinated population and in 2009 there were 5,000 in a highly vaccinated population. Where was herd immunity when that happened?
So what does all of this really mean? It means that mumps is a very mild disease, especially when it is contracted during childhood. So before vaccination, we had 200,000 cases of mostly children experiencing an uncomfortable but mild illness and then having lifelong immunity to protect them into their teen and adult years. (And this immunity was completely free and easily available to everyone.) After vaccination, we have a solution that has a 10-15% failure rate at its best. At its worst, the MMR vaccine may very well be less effective than the medical community has represented because Merck may have deliberately manipulated data on the MMR shot. Regardless of its actual effectiveness, one thing is for sure: vaccine manufacturers make a lot more money by administering multiple doses of mumps vaccine than simply allowing people to develop natural immunity.