Health & Fitness

Sick celebs bring attention to chicken pox, mumps

A Pittsburgh Penguins fan holds up a sign during the third period of an NHL hockey game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Penguins on Dec. 23 in Tampa, Fla. Several members of the Penguins have contracted mumps during the season.
A Pittsburgh Penguins fan holds up a sign during the third period of an NHL hockey game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Penguins on Dec. 23 in Tampa, Fla. Several members of the Penguins have contracted mumps during the season. Associated Press

Ebola may have garnered all the headlines – even earning its worldwide fighters“Time” magazine’s coveted “Person of the Year” – but as far as contagious, infectious diseases go, it’s sooo fall 2014.

That’s because, with winter officially here, we’ve got some new, high-profile cases of familiar diseases that, while typically not fatal, are far more likely to impact the general public.

In just the past week we’ve learned:

The reason Hollywood star Angelina Jolie missed the worldwide premiere of “Unbroken,” a film she directed, was that she was diagnosed with a case of chicken pox. In a short Facebook video explanation she released last week that went, uh, viral, there were already red marks and soon-to-be pox blisters visible on her throat, chest and shoulders.

The National Hockey League is suffering from an outbreak of the mumps. To date, more than a dozen players – including Pittsburgh Penguins star center Sidney Crosby – have been diagnosed with the highly contagious condition, which is characterized by swelling in the face (especially around the salivary glands, jaw and under the ears).

Looks like it’s time for a refresher course in diseases most of us haven’t thought about in decades.

Chicken pox

For most boomers growing up, we either endured a case of the itchy, rashy, uncomfortable varicella zoster virus – or knew plenty of kids who did. Once you had it, you never suffered from it a second time. However, the virus never leaves your system – putting you at risk for developing shingles later in life.

For the last two decades, however, chicken pox has become increasingly rare, thanks to a vaccination (Varivax) that was developed in 1995.

An airborne illness, chicken pox is highly contagious for the non-immunized – and especially so for adults, like Jolie, who never had the disease in their youth.

In fact, the Mayo Clinic recommends that adults who never had chicken pox receive the vaccination.

That’s because the disease is often more serious when contracted in adulthood, as it’s often accompanied by pneumonia. There’s also a risk of developing other potentially catastrophic complications, including encephalitis and toxic shock syndrome.

Of course, Jolie, like most adults who contract chicken pox, is likely to weather the virus just fine – but her case is a powerful reminder that we should all revisit our own immunity to the disease.

Mumps

My first reaction to hearing about the mumps outbreak in the NHL was,“Wait – people still get the mumps?”

Turns out they do – although reported cases are exceedingly rare.

In 2013, the World Health Organization said there were around 600 reported cases of the airborne-transmitted virus in the U.S., and less than 100 in Canada.

The so-called“MMR” (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine has, for the most part, eliminated these viruses from everyday life. Experts surmise that the reason why some adults are still vulnerable to the disease is that they received only one dose – instead of the preferred two doses – of the vaccine.

The NHL outbreak proves that mumps, which is often accompanied by fever, fatigue, headaches and flu-like symptoms, remains a significant threat – especially when folks live and work in close, less-than-sanitary conditions like the ones in which professional athletes often toil. (On a similar note, in the last decade, the National Football League has battled to contain multiple MRSA outbreaks.)

As with chicken pox, mumps is far more serious when contracted after puberty. Potential complications include hearing loss, encephalitis, meningitis and infertility.

Both Jolie and the infected NHL players have taken the appropriate steps – immediate quarantine for between five and 10 days.

And, perhaps more importantly, they’ve provided us an effective reminder that, while these potentially serious diseases are rare, they have certainly not been eradicated.

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