Mumps is making a major comeback in England, with some of the highest numbers of cases in a decade. While the reasons behind the increase are complex, experts are saying the resurgence has a clear link with misinformation about vaccinations and the bitter legacy of disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield.
Preliminary data from Public Health England (PHE) shows there were 5,042 confirmed cases of mumps in England in 2019, compared to just 1,066 cases in 2018. It’s a trend that’s set to continue too, with 546 confirmed cases in January 2020 compared to 191 in January 2019.
Mumps is a viral infection that causes symptoms such as fever, muscle pain, and a headache. This is usually followed by painful swelling of the salivary glands, causing the face to balloon up. It can also cause serious complications, such as male infertility, meningitis, and deafness. The infection can be prevented through two doses of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. While the mumps component of the shot is less effective than the others and protection is known to wear off, the illness is usually much less severe in vaccinated people.
PHE says most of the recent cases have emerged from outbreaks in universities and colleges among young adults who missed out on the MMR jab in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Likely by no coincidence, Andrew Wakefield released his "fraudulent" study that falsely linked the MMR vaccine to the onset of autism in 1998. The paper has since been dubbed "the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years" and has been retracted from the journal it was originally published in.
While the findings of this paper have been wholly debunked, the study resulted in a slump in vaccination rates in many countries and helped spawn the “anti-vax” movement. As this resurgence shows, we are still feeling the fallout of the “Wakefield effect”.
“Many of the people who are developing mumps now were due to have the vaccine when the scare about MMR was at its height," commented Dr David Elliman, Consultant in Community Child Health.
Mumps is not the only preventable disease on the increase again. Scarlet fever, whooping cough, and gout might sound like archaic diseases from Victorian London, but they are also experiencing a notable resurgence in the UK. Many parts of the world are also undergoing a meteoric rise of measles cases too. Once again, the causes of this are multi-faceted and complicated, but measles epidemics in western countries are often closely associated with anti-vaccination misinformation.
“The rise in mumps cases is alarming and yet another example of the long-term damage caused by anti-vax information,” Matt Hancock, the UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said in a statement.
“Science proves that vaccines are the best form of defence against a host of potentially deadly diseases and are safer and more effective than ever before," Hancock added. "Those who claim otherwise are risking people’s lives.”