April 26, 2006 — -- At the epicenter of the mumps epidemic in Iowa, a massive effort to vaccinate 25,000 people is now under way.
"We're over 1,000 cases now, and we're not seeing a let up yet," said Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, medical director and state epidemiologist for the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Doctors in Iowa have diagnosed about 50 new cases a day and the outbreak -- the worst in 20 years -- has spread well beyond Iowa and into at least seven other states.
Many of those infected are college students.
"I figured I got the shots when I was a little kid, and it didn't matter anymore," said Angela Servais, who was waiting in line to be vaccinated at Iowa's Simpson College in Indianola.
Many 18- to 22-year-olds received only one of the two recommended doses of vaccine growing up, so Iowa health officials set up vaccination clinics at 32 campuses around the state, including one at Simpson College, where students are in the midst of taking final exams.
"It's been a stressful week, but what's one more thing on the list," said senior Tiffany Homan, rolling up the sleeve of her sweatshirt and grimacing at the prick of the needle. "I didn't know a lot about the mumps because I thought it was taken care of at such a young age."
Health officials say it is important to mobilize this mass immunization program before the end of the academic year.
"It's important to try to catch these kids before they leave campus here, in case they've been exposed, " said Gary Kendell, at Iowa's Wayne County Office of Emergency Management.
Mumps, spread by sneezing and coughing, causes swelling of the head and neck, and in some cases, the reproductive glands. It can spread quickly in close quarters like college dormitories, and those infected may not even realize they are spreading the disease. It is most contagious three days before symptoms occur until four days after symptoms have subsided.
"Any time you get human beings all together, you have the potential for a lot of diseases to spread," Quinlisk said.
That is why there is particular concern at Drake University in Des Moines. The campus hosts the Drake Relays this weekend -- an international track meet expected to draw 8,000 athletes and 14,000 spectators. The Web site for the event urges visitors to check their immunization records before heading to Iowa.
Many of the track events will take place in an outdoor arena, where health officials say there is lower risk for transmission of the disease. No one at Drake University has been diagnosed with mumps. Still, health officials have set up an immunization program at the university's health clinic.
"If we can get it under control, and get it stopped, particularly in our young adults, we're not going to keep spreading it around the rest of the United States." Quinlisk said.