Mumps On Ice as Disease Spreads in National Hockey League

Mumps, the once-common childhood illness, has spread to professional hockey in a particularly active year for the virus in the U.S.

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the National Hockey League’s reigning most valuable player, tested positive for the disease on Dec. 13, the team physician said in a press conference last week. He joins at least 13 players with the Anaheim Ducks, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild and Penguins have who have been infected.

Mumps is frequently spread in dormitories or among players in sports teams, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. There’s been more than 1,000 cases diagnosed in the U.S. through Nov. 29, more than double all of 2013, the CDC said. The disease, which causes fever and inflamed salivary glands under the jaw and in the cheeks, primarily affects college students and high schoolers. In the most recent large outbreak, in 2006, the disease swept through Midwestern colleges, with 6,584 cases resulting in 85 hospitalizations.

“What appears to be happening where it’s being spread between teams -- that would at least suggest that there’s at least some transmission that’s happening in the games themselves,” Greg Wallace, head of the measles, mumps, rubella and polio team at the CDC, said in a phone interview. “It is a contact sport, it’s a fast-moving sport and there’s a lot of substitutions back and forth.”

Childhood Disease

The 2006 case was the first time the virus spread among people who followed the recommended two-shot vaccination regimen, showing protection may decline with time, the CDC said. Mumps was once a common childhood disease in the U.S. and remains a threat in poorer countries. In rare cases, it causes the testicles to swell and reduces male fertility. The virus, spread by coughing and sneezing, was nearly eradicated in the U.S. after Merck & Co. released its MumpsVax vaccine in 1967.

The disease’s move through the NHL is also affecting patients who were well prepared. The Penguins captain Crosby had had “all the immunizations against the illness as well as a booster shot a year ago,” the team doctor, Dharmesh Vyas, said at the press conference last week.

Children’s Hospital

Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford said Crosby is past the infectious stage and could return to practice today or tomorrow, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Beau Bennett, a Penguins right wing who has been on injured reserve since Nov. 24, is also suspected of having the disease, Rutherford said.

Some NHL teams are taking precautionary measures to avoid questions the Penguins faced after members of the team, including Bennett, visited a Pittsburgh children’s hospital on Dec. 11, according to Rutherford. The New York Islanders are canceling their annual holiday hospital visits, the team said in a statement.

The outbreak was unexpected and the league has been in touch with teams to slow the virus, according to Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner.

“We have been in contact with team physicians and training staffs with regard to ‘best practices’ from a prevention standpoint,” Daly said in an e-mail. “As long as our clubs are doing what they need to do to minimize risk of contraction, we are hopeful that the wave of cases will run their course and life will return to normal in the relatively near term.”

‘Messy Sport’

Sports like hockey create many opportunities for infectious diseases to spread among players, according to James Conway, a professor of infectious disease at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

“You watch these guys taking a big hit up against the boards, there’s snot and boogers and all sorts of stuff flying around as the guy gets hit hard enough, so I don’t think it would surprise me at all that there’s some transmission just by stuff flying around during the games,” Conway said in a phone interview. “It’s a sloppy, messy sport.”

The single-dose version of the mumps vaccine wiped out 98 percent of cases from 1968 to 1985. Merck added a second dose to the shot regimen after outbreaks in the late 1980s infected previously vaccinated children, according to a 2008 paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The vaccine remains the most effective defense against widespread outbreaks of the virus, which infects about 2.2 people of every 100,000 in the U.S., researchers said in the paper. The outbreak in 2006 would probably have spread to “tens or hundreds of thousands” without the vaccine, they said.

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