Sidney Crosby’s rosy-cheeked image has appeared on ads for Tim Hortons, Gatorade and Reebok. Now swollen cheeks and a case of the mumps have made him the involuntary poster boy for a different kind of campaign.
The message from this one? Check your vaccination records and make sure your shots are up to date.
Public health officials, at least, are seeing it that way during an outbreak of the vaccine-preventable disease among young players in the National Hockey League.
“Celebrity can bring things to the forefront,” says Dr. Vinita Dubey, associate medical officer of health with Toronto Public Health. “If Sidney Crosby can get mumps, so can you.”
Especially if you’re a young adult who has not had the two required doses of the childhood mumps vaccine.
“This is an opportunity to check your immunization status and make sure you’re vaccinated,” says Dubey.
On Friday, the 27-year-old Crosby became the 13th NHL player to be diagnosed this season, while 23-year-old teammate Beau Bennett was being tested Monday after showing symptoms.
Mumps is typically a childhood disease, but has become rare since the vaccine was introduced more than 40 years ago. Just nine cases have been reported in Ontario this year.
While in most instances it’s miserable rather than dangerous — causing fever, aches and painful swelling of the salivary glands near the ear and lower jaw — it can lead to serious complications such as meningitis, deafness and damage to the central nervous system, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. In rare cases, it can lead to sterility in men infected after puberty.
It is extremely contagious, spread through saliva droplets, and the hockey environment appears to be an ideal breeding ground because of shared water bottles along with close proximity on benches and in locker rooms.
The outbreak prompted Team Canada to vaccinate players on Monday, in advance of the world junior hockey championship, which starts on Boxing Day in Toronto and Montreal.
“It’s more a precaution than anything else,” coach Benoit Groulx told reporters at training camp in St. Catharines.
An infection control committee of the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association is following recommendations from the U.S. Center for Disease Control on managing mumps outbreaks, NHLPA spokesperson Jonathan Weatherdon said in an email. That includes making vaccinations available to players — the Maple Leafs had them done on Sunday — and reviewing hygiene techniques and sanitation at arenas and practice facilities and sending updates to clubs and players.
“We continue to educate the players on best practices to avoid contracting and spreading mumps.”
While fans and players may have been taken aback that young adult athletes in prime condition would be felled by a traditional childhood illness, health experts aren’t.
“It’s not really that much of a surprise,” said Dr. Shelley Deeks, medical director of immunization and vaccine-preventable diseases with Public Health Ontario.
That’s because people born in the 1980s and early ’90s are the group least likely to have received both vaccine doses now considered necessary to prevent mumps. In 1996, a second dose of the combined measles-mumps-rubella vaccine was added to the roster to provide better protection.
But after the change, many older children may not have had a catch-up second dose.
“That cohort is particularly susceptible if mumps is introduced to a population,” she said.
Currently in Ontario, the first publicly-funded vaccine for measles-mumps-rubella is recommended after 12 months of age and the second between ages 4 and 6. It is among the nine vaccines considered mandatory for schoolchildren unless they have obtained a notarized exemption.
Dubey of Toronto Public Health says when it comes to vaccination records, it’s difficult to capture the attention of young adults who may be at risk, but the NHL situation may do that. “Now that you see celebrities with it, it might make you think twice.”
Like all immunizations, this one is not 100 per cent effective. Up to 10 per cent of people may still be susceptible after two shots, said Dr. Karina Top, pediatric infectious disease physician at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology at IWK Health Centre in Halifax. Crosby, in fact, had reportedly received a shot against the virus earlier this year and was believed to be immune.
That’s one reason why physicians stress immunizing as many people as possible, so the “herd protection” reduces the odds of the others getting sick.
“Usually people recover fully,” says Top. But there are risks in adulthood.
Twenty to 30 per cent of men who get mumps after puberty develop orchitis, a painful swelling of the testicles, she said. And in a small percentage of those cases, it can lead to sterility.