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This is the most baffling sports medicine story of the year: Thirteen NHL players and two referees have been diagnosed with mumps—a potentially severe and exceedingly viral infection that classically causes fever, body aches, malaise, and in about half of cases, parotitis (a painful swelling of the salivary glands). It’s gotten so bad in the NHL that Sidney Crosby set off a mumps alert last week when he spoke to reporters with a welt on his face. (On Sunday, the Penguins confirmed Crosby does indeed have the disease.) So what’s going on?
The story of this outbreak appears to have begun in early November, when Anaheim Ducks defenseman Francois Beauchemin noticed a swelling in his jaw after a game against the Arizona Coyotes on November 7th. A few hours later, he developed a fever, chills, muscle aches, and lost his appetite. Four days later, he was ten pounds lighter. By then, the virus was spreading around the Ducks locker room. Three of his teammates would catch the disease before it leapt to other teams: the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, and the Minnesota Wild, where five players came down with mumps, including all-star defenseman Ryan Suter.
“Ten percent of our team population contracted it,” Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher recently said. “As far as I know, everybody received the immunization when they were young.” If that’s true, what’s the explanation? We know that the mumps vaccine unquestionably works—cases in the United States declined by 99 percent following its introduction in 1967—so why is an outbreak in hockey happening now?
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