COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Health agencies trying to stem a large and growing mumps outbreak are advising college, school and even day care leaders to make sure central Ohio students are immunized and to separate them from those who haven't been vaccinated and those who are infected.
More than 250 cases of the contagious viral illness are confirmed, making it the largest mumps outbreak in Ohio in years, said Brian Fowler, the chief of vaccine-preventable disease epidemiology at the Ohio Department of Health.
It comprises most of the 276 mumps cases reported nationwide so far this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By comparison, 438 cases were reported last year.
The Ohio cases date to January, and it is hard to say how long the outbreak might last. Officials hope new cases will become more sporadic, especially as classes end and students of all ages have less contact in school environments that make the spread of illnesses more likely.
"We're not out of the woods yet," Columbus Public Health spokesman Jose Rodriguez said.
More than 150 cases are linked to Ohio State University, which began an initiative Monday to get more students and staff vaccinated and is offering the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine at four locations. Students are urged to get two doses of the vaccine.
Columbus State Community College, which reported a few cases, scheduled an immunization clinic Wednesday and Thursday.
Health officials say immunization is the best strategy to counter the outbreak, though the vaccine isn't 100 percent effective. The majority of those infected had been vaccinated, Rodriguez said.
Ohio requires the vaccine for youngsters attending school, but some are exempted for philosophical or health reasons. In Delaware County north of Columbus, a handful of unvaccinated students at a school that had two reported cases are being excluded from attending class for at least 25 days, the incubation period for the illness.
Mumps often starts with fever, fatigue and body aches and can be spread through droplets of saliva or mucus. Up to one-third of people who contract the illness don't show major symptoms but can be contagious, so health officials say the origin of the outbreak may never be known despite efforts to investigate links between the cases.
"It's nice to know what caused it initially, but the reality is it's much more important to focus on containing it," Fowler said.
The vaccine is key and has helped reduce outbreaks since the 1950s and 1960s, when the state had about 10,000 mumps cases annually, he said.
Health officials say that infected individuals should remain isolated for several days and that others should take steps to protect themselves, such as washing their hands frequently and not sharing drinks.