Students under 19 years old are at risk of a new mumps outbreak that could hit campuses around the country this autumn, according to health officials.
Sheffield University has written to all new students advising them to have a measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination before the start of term following a serious outbreak of the disease in the city, which has affected 250 students, about 10 per cent of whom required hospital treatment.
Rosy McNaught, a consultant in communicable disease control with the Health Protection Agency in Sheffield, said she would "not be at all surprised" if other universities were also affected. "Those in the 16-19 age group are doubly vulnerable to mumps because they were born just before the introduction of MMR and were unlikely to be exposed to natural infection," she said.
The incidence of mumps has doubled in recent years, with some experts believing that 70 per cent of older teenagers could contract the disease.
The virus can spread through saliva or through coughs and sneezes.
University campuses are thought to be breeding grounds for the disease.
"Once someone has this disease it can spread easily among 'snogging'
students or housemates sharing bottles or cups," said a Sheffield University spokeswoman. About 7,000 students have taken part in a four-day vaccination programme at both universities in Sheffield in a concerted effort to nip the outbreak in the bud.
Dr McNaught said: "We did not want this outbreak rattling on. We can't make people have the vaccine but it is important that they understand that they may be vulnerable."
The incubation period for mumps is 14-21 days and the first symptoms are a headache and fever a day or two before the swelling of the parotid salivary glands in front of the ears. Severe complications can occur in a few people, including swelling of the testes or ovaries, meningitis and encephalitis.
"In a couple of years we will be able to stop worrying, as future student cohorts will have MMR protection," Dr McNaught said. She added that the controversial possible side-effects of MMR were not a danger to young people in the student age group.
Earlier this year 1,400 students at the Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington were given the MMR vaccine after a dozen suspected cases of mumps occurred. In the previous five years the town had had only a single confirmed case of mumps.