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Mumps and the NHL: How Safe Are Sports Teams?

16 Dec, 2014

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
CDC Has Seen Outbreaks in Lacrosse Team, Rugby Tournament As Well

In a year when ebola has claimed center stage in health concerns, it is ironically a childhood disease that is attempting to bring the NHL to a screeching halt with, at last count, 15 players officially diagnosed. Now, it has other organizations questioning health and safety issues in sports teams.

So how is it that a disease with a vaccine can cause havoc among adults?

According to Yahoo! Sports, “Mumps began making a comeback around six years ago, moving from infecting mostly children to adolescents and adults. The vaccines given in children can have waning effects later in life. Without a booster, those who received the vaccine could still catch mumps later in life. (And medical experts have argued during this outbreak that the failure to deliver another booster later in life is an indication that we’re not doing enough to protect the populace from mumps.)”

The obvious next question, of course, is how they managed to reach the NHL. And right now, that’s a big question mark.

"There are some level of cases that occur in the United States every year, and it's not unusual for us to pinpoint the source," said the CDC's Greg Wallace, team lead on measles, mumps and rubella, in an article appearing in USA Today. "What makes this more challenging is all the travel that happens. They are not just in one place as most of our outbreaks are."

The incubation period for mumps (meaning the time from exposure to symptoms) is 12 to 25 days, which also makes the medical detective work challenging. NHL teams, the USA Today article noted, can play as many as three games in four nights.

The CDC noted it has seen mumps outbreaks in dormitories, on a lacrosse team and at a rugby tournament. That, of course, has parents worried about the possibility of kids contracting it from their own teammates. At the moment, however, that fear appears to be allayed – the patients making headlines are adults; juveniles still seem to be protected by the vaccines they received earlier.

The USA Today article notes mumps could be transmitted between NHL players because they're in close contact. But one question not easily answered is whether a player could transfer the virus to a competitor through physical contact in a game.

"We've been debating the same thing," the CDC’s Wallace said. "It is a contact sport, but it's a fast-moving game. If a person had enough virus and came in close enough contact, it is certainly possible to transfer that way. But it would be unusual for the game itself to be the mechanism for how it spread."

According to Yahoo! Sports, “Anaheim might still be ground zero for this outbreak. There have been reports of mumps outbreaks at local schools, and that could easily mean a player brought mumps to the locker room after his tyke brought it in from school.”

For now, the virus seems to be contained to adults, albeit some who have had the booster shot. It’s not expected to help the cause of the anti-vaxxers who resist the idea of having children inoculated. And although the NHL continues to promote locker room cleanliness and to discourage sharing of equipment, it may just mean a waiting game until the virus burns itself out.

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