Experts, Students Recall A Year of Uncommon Diseases

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UPDATED: January 25, 2018 at 9:01 p.m.

In the past year, Harvard students have had to fend off a string of uncommon viruses—mumps, tuberculosis, and Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease, to name a few.

Nonetheless, experts and students say they do not find the run of illnesses too concerning. Saim Raza ’19, a Cabot House resident, said he is "not too worried"—though he added he was surprised by the large number of mumps cases his freshman year.

“I don’t know too much about it and I just think that it’s weird,” Raza said. “I’ve seen memes, as everyone has."


Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease, a virus generally found among children and characterized by mouth sores and body rashes, hit campus in September 2017.

Harvard University Health Services spokesperson Michael Perry confirmed cases of the virus in Currier House last fall. Resident Dean Amanda S. Lobell ’99 told students in the House to be vigilant of the viral illness by taking extra hygiene precautions.

Mumps and tuberculosis also have a recent history of visiting Harvard’s campus. In the spring of 2016, HUHS quarantined 66 students with confirmed cases of mumps, a highly infectious virus.

One year later, HUHS Director Paul J. Barreira found cases of tuberculosis among Mather House residents. In June, Barreira returned to announce two additional cases of mumps, informing students that health officials planned to carefully “track and monitor the situation.”

Dr. Robert W. Frenck Jr., an infectious disease expert, said that, though the majority of children receive the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine when they are around one year old, the mumps portion of the vaccine is less effective than the measles and rubella components.

“Measles is 95 percent effective and rubella is about the same. Mumps is about 70 percent,” Frenck said.

Given the lower efficacy of the vaccine, Frenck said mumps outbreaks have struck several college campuses in recent years.

“What people are thinking about is giving another dose of mumps to everyone on campus if there is a big enough outbreak to try to break the transmission,” Frenck said. “It’s not common but it happens."

Emma Y. Lin ’21 said she was also not worried about Harvard’s series of viruses.

“At least the Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease is confined to specific dorms and probably spreads through bathrooms,” Lin said.

Frenck said that while mumps can seem daunting, it is generally not too worrisome.

“It comes in big waves,” Frenck said. “There’s no treatment—it just has to run its course. You can have fevers with it but the rash is pretty prominent, and it can be scary.”

Tuberculosis is the most common infectious disease in the world, though it does not typically cause death unless one is at high risk, according to National Public Radio. While the disease’s prominence in the U.S. has declined, Frenck said he suspects that, when people return to Harvard from their homes abroad, they may be carrying strains of the bacterial illness.

“If rare diseases were to show up anywhere, it would probably be on a college campus,” Lin said. “Some place that has a lot of international students.”

“It’s not going to affect me long-term,” Raza said. “Even if I do get it, it’ll be a week or something.”

This article has been updated to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: January 25, 2017

A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated that tuberculosis is a viral disease. In fact, it is a bacterial disease.

—Staff writer Ahab Chopra can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ahab_chopra

—Staff writer Ashley M. Cooper can be reached at


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