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Penn State's mumps outbreak grows to 36 probable cases

Pennsylvania State University is still grappling with a growing outbreak of mumps as its students head home or to spring break meccas, where they will encounter thousands of other young people.

The school now has 36 probable cases of the disease. Twelve have been confirmed, said Shelley Haffner, infectious disease manager at Penn State's student health center. A week ago, the university had 15 suspected cases.

"It's troublesome. We've never had these kinds of mumps cases on campus since I've been here," Haffner said. "We are probably in the early stages of an outbreak."

All of the students with mumps symptoms have had at least one dose of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) shot. Most had the recommended two. None of the students with mumps has suffered serious complications.

The mumps vaccine is about 88 percent effective.

Mumps is a contagious disease spread through respiratory droplets. Symptoms include swelling and tenderness of the glands just below or in front of the ear or jaw, fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, and lack of appetite. They occur about two weeks after exposure to the virus. Some people have no symptoms.

Mumps can occasionally cause inflammation of the testicles, brain, tissues covering the brain, and ovaries, as well as deafness.

People infected with the virus can spread it for two to three days before they have symptoms and five days after, Haffner said.

The long lead time from exposure to symptoms and the fact that the virus can spread when people don't know they're sick makes keeping the disease in check more difficult. Imagine how many people 36 college students can encounter in a few days. "You can have a lot of additional spread," Haffner said.

The university has started offering third doses of vaccine to students they believe are at higher risk.

Students have been urged to wash their hands frequently and avoid sharing food or drinks.