Social Media, Math, and the Mystery of a Mumps Outbreak


One of the most contagious diseases, mumps is a disease that many people automatically assume is practically nonexistent in today’s world. However, in August 2016, almost 3,000 people over a 33-county area in Arkansas found out that mumps is still alive and well. Needless to say, when an outbreak of this magnitude takes place, local health officials are going to sit up and take notice. In this instance, the Arkansas Department of Health needed to find out not only why so many cases of mumps were occurring, but also how future outbreaks such as this could be curtailed. While it took calculating on many fronts to help health officials finally determine why these cases happened, eventually it was determined that even people who were vaccinated were nevertheless getting sick.

Breaking Down the Data of the Mumps Outbreak

When an outbreak of any disease occurs, it’s important to break down the data in as many ways as possible. In the case of the mumps outbreak in Arkansas, data was broken down in a variety of ways. One of the most important tools used was the Healthmap Digital Surveillance System, which relied on collecting social media reports as well as other reports from around the world that pertained to public health. Once these reports were obtained, the results were analyzed and then turned into epidemiological data that could be used to track outbreaks as well as predict any future outbreaks that could occur.

Imperfect Vaccinations

While many people automatically assume that all vaccinations given for diseases today are full-proof, the fact is that is not always the case. Unfortunately, that is particularly true with measles. Since mumps is so contagious, the vaccination is given in two doses. However, for every 10 people who receive these vaccinations, one of those people will remain vulnerable to the virus. Based on available data, it has been determined that a community-level vaccination rate would need to exceed 96 percent to prevent an active transmission of the virus.

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Self-Reporting Data

While self-reporting of vaccinations by patients would seem to be very accurate, the results may in fact be surprising. While in the Arkansas mumps outbreak more than 70 percent of patients reported getting the two-dose vaccination, in reality the actual percentage ranged from 35-46 percent. After data analysis, scientists discovered that self-reporting rates were on average two times greater than actual rates. The reason for this was unclear, which made it even more difficult to determine the accuracy of the data.

Vaccine Hesitancy

Across the United States, more and more people are beginning to have what has been deemed vaccine hesitancy, which is a hesitance to receive vaccines due to unexpected health concerns that could come from the vaccines. However, most public health officials view this philosophy as one that could ultimately do the opposite of what patients hope will happen. Because of this, health officials most often recommend what is known as herd vaccination, which refers to vaccinating at least 90 percent of a community. By doing this, most health officials agree that the most vulnerable people in a community, such as those less than one year old or people suffering from cancer, would be protected against infection.

While this unusual case shows how the relationship between social media and math can help public health officials learn more about disease outbreaks, it also demonstrates how vulnerable communities can be when it comes to these situations. As technology continues to evolve, it’s likely many more methods will become available to health officials. If this happens, chances are future outbreaks of mumps or other diseases may be curtailed or even prevented altogether.

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