Another Mumps Outbreak Threatens to Freeze Out Hockey Season


NHL teams are taking extra precautions against mumps, as the highly contagious virus continues its spread from team-to-team in yet another outbreak.

Every hockey season comes with its share of shakeups. For example, in 2016, there was a blizzard that resulted in multiple rescheduled games. In 2015, the Ottawa Senators made postseason history when they made a huge comeback from a 14-point deficit and made it into the playoffs. Now, in 2017, a mumps outbreak has hit the NHL, again. That’s right; mumps, a highly contagious virus that most individuals are immunized against before entering kindergarten as part of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine regimen. In the past three hockey seasons, two outbreaks have occurred.

Back in 2014, a number of players and NHL officials on multiple teams received unwelcome “holiday gifts” in the form of mumps infections. A total of six teams had more than two dozen players and officials out at one point or another, starting in mid-October of that year, when the St. Louis Blues played the Minnesota Wild. Shortly after, two Blues players reported mumps-like symptoms. However, the players were not tested for mumps in order to confirm infection. Whether this was due to the common misconception that childhood vaccination against mumps provides total immunity against the virus, or that the players experienced just mild symptoms, (such as fever, headache, muscle aches, or tiredness) instead of the telltale symptoms associated with mumps infection (such as swollen glands and puffy cheeks) is unknown. Regardless of the reason, the cases remained unconfirmed until a few weeks later, when a referee that had worked a Blues game and then an Anaheim Ducks game, fell sick; from that point forward, the infection began to spread throughout the league.

It is important to note that there had been a “mumps alert” in Orange County in mid-September, and that several Ducks players lived in that area. During that outbreak, the Wild was one of the hardest-hit teams, with five players out during the outbreak. The New Jersey Devils and the Pittsburgh Penguins also had five players out due to mumps infection.

Now, in 2017, it appears that the mumps are back in the NHL, and the Wild appear to be, once again, at the center of the outbreak. The Wild lost two forwards to the infection in late February, although this did not stop the team from snagging a win just one day after the two forwards were diagnosed, along with an assistant coach and a team services staff member. But the Wild are not the only ones coming down with the mumps. The Vancouver Canucks recently announced that a total of seven players and one trainer had presented with symptoms and have been isolated.

Unlike in 2014, when the infection was not immediately diagnosed, and therefore, had been able to spread largely unchecked in the early season, this year the teams appear more prepared. Players suspected of infection have not just been held out of games; they are being isolated for a 5-day period while diagnosis is confirmed. Players, coaches, trainers, and referees who are diagnosed will miss “at least three games,” according to a Wild spokesperson who addressed the press. The Wild is taking extra precautions, using a “Sani Sport” machine to disinfect equipment. A total of 28 teams in the league use this device, which reduces, and in many cases eliminates, the spread of bacterial and viral infections, such as mumps, Staphylococcus aureus, and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), that might otherwise thrive in a sweaty, moist environment with a high volume of saliva, mucus, and blood.

Although most people do receive an MMR vaccine during childhood, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that not all cases of mumps are preventable by the vaccine. A single dose of the vaccine is about 78% effective. In addition, patients who receive two doses of the vaccine are estimated to be protected 88% of the time. In 2016, there was a record-setting outbreak of mumps that spanned seven states in the Northeast and Midwest. In total, there were more than 4,600 cases of mumps reported last year, compared to just over 1,200 in 2015. “If it were not for the vaccine, we would be seeing many, many more cases [and]…normally, many more persons with complications,” an Arkansas Department of Health official noted at the time, adding, “This tell us that even though some vaccinated individuals are still getting the mumps, they are experiencing mild disease.”

It remains to be seen whether or not the NHL, home of a professional locker room that can be the perfect environment for spreading infections such as mumps, can stop the spread this time around. Sports settings provide an increasingly high risk of acquiring mumps, as well as similar infections, since the virus is able to travel via airborne saliva, shared eating and drinking items, and unwashed hands. Team doctors are providing vaccinations to all players, according to the NHL.

At time of publication, only one infected player was eligible to return to active play, but he has not done so at this time.

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