5 Comparisons Between Mumps and Zika Virus

Sure, the Zika virus sounds exotic. And the Zika virus is exotic: It's a virus that was first identified in Africa in the 1940s and then spread throughout the world by Aedes aegypti, an invasive species of mosquito also from Africa. (Zika virus is also spread to a lesser extent by Aedes albopictus or Asian tiger mosquito and possibly other species of Aedes.) However, in some ways, the Zika virus is remarkably similar to another more hackneyed virus that we all know well: the mumps virus

Both Are Likely Teratogens

Asian tiger mosquito

First, there's weighty circumstantial evidence that both the mumps and Zika viruses are teratogens. A teratogen is an environmental agent or factor that causes malformation or death to the unborn baby or fetus. Other teratogens include the varicella virus (which causes chickenpox and herpes zoster), the heavy metal lead, and radiation.

Mumps is a teratogen believed to cause fetal death. There is also mixed evidence connecting the mumps virus and endocardial fibroelastosis, a congenital heart disease in infants that can cause heart failure.

The Zika virus received a lot of press because about 4000 babies in Brazil, where the mosquito vector Aedes aegypti is rampant, have been born with microcephaly. Microcephaly refers to when a baby is born with a small head, or head circumference about 20 percent smaller than usual. Depending on severity, microcephaly can mean either permanent and substantial brain damage or early death. The Brazilian government has found Zika virus in the brains of some babies born with microcephaly.

To put these findings in perspective, the number of cases of microcephaly in Brazil has increased thirty-fold during 2016. This mushrooming spread of Zika virus is thought to be related to the 2014 World Cup, when people traveled to Brazil from all over the world.

Both Are RNA Viruses

No surprise here... Both the Zika virus and the mumps virus are viruses. Nevertheless, even in their composition, these viruses share similarities.

Specifically, the mumps virus, or paramyxovirus, sports a nonsegmented, negative-strand bit of RNA. Similarly, the Zika virus is a flavivirus that consists of a single strand of RNA.

These viruses appear to spread differently. Mumps is spread through the air by means of respiratory droplets as well as by saliva exchange and exposure to fomites (inanimate objects like bedding or utensils).

Although the Zika virus can be spread by either sex or blood transfusion, the principal ways that this virus is spread is by means of either mosquito bites or transmission from mother to unborn baby.

They Result in Similar Clinical Symptoms

Both infections with the Zika virus and the mumps virus is asymptomatic in many people who are infected. Specifically, the Zika virus causes symptoms in only 1 of 5 people infected. The mumps virus results in clinically evident symptoms in about half of the people that it infects.

Furthermore, although mumps virus can get pretty nasty and hit the testicles among other sensitive organs, in most people, both of these viruses typically cause milder prodromes, or self-limited clinical symptoms.

Here are some typical symptoms of mumps:

  • fever
  • malaise
  • fatigue
  • anorexia
  • swelling of the parotid glands (parotitis) and salivary glands

Here are some typical symptoms caused by the Zika virus:

  • fever
  • headaches
  • sore throat
  • lymphadenopathy
  • muscle pains
  • joint pains
  • rash
  • conjunctivitis (pinkeye)

Of note, both mumps and Zika lack respiratory symptoms.

Comparing Treatments

There exists specific treatment for neither the Zika virus nor the mumps virus. Instead, both infections are treated symptomatically, which means that we have treatment options only for the symptoms that these infectious diseases cause.

Mumps is typically treated with rest, cold or warm compresses and pain relief medications like acetaminophen as well as administration of soft foods and fluids. Bar the occasional development of long-term sequelae, or repercussions, the effects of mumps infection clear on their own after several days.

The aches and pains of the Zika virus are also treated with fluids, bed rest, and analgesic medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol). Of note, people with the Zika virus should avoid taking NSAIDs like aspirin and ibuprofen because these medications may increase bleeding risk.

Like mumps, the symptoms of Zika virus usually go away on their own—taking several days to weeks to do so. Finally, some people who are infected with Zika virus go on to develop Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological condition marked by ascending weakness which makes it difficult to move and walk.


Along with a host of other vaccinations, every baby out there should be getting vaccinated for MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella). For the most part, vaccination has vitiated the threat of mumps. Alas, the biggest threat to mumps prevention is the antivaccination movement.

However, although we have a new vaccine for dengue—a disease similar to the ZIka virus—we have no vaccine for the Zika virus. Furthermore, it may be some time before we see a vaccine for the Zika virus created. The creation of a vaccine takes lots of money, lots of effort and lots of time. All these factors conflate to make the quest for a Zika virus vaccine an uphill battle.

Nevertheless, there's reason to be sanguine because the humanistic impact of the Zika virus should appeal to international humanitarian efforts. The prospect of substantial numbers of babies born with microcephaly throughout South and Central America is petrifying.

In the meantime, ​however, the best way to prevent exposure to the Zika virus involves insect repellent and (for Westerners) travel avoidance by expectant mothers to countries where mosquitoes spreading the Zika virus are endemic. (Unfortunately, in Brazil the cost of a small bottle of insect repellent is $8, making the price exorbitant to the average citizen who makes about $160 a month. Ostensibly, the Brazilian government has promised to provide free repellent to low-income populations. The Brazilian government has also deployed 200,000 military personnel in a bid to eradicate the Aedes mosquito.)  

On a final note, the Zika virus shares similarities with viruses other than mumps. For instance, both the Zika virus and CMV both cause birth defects in babies and mild clinical symptoms in adults. Moreover, malaria is a mosquito-borne virus that causes poor pregnancy outcomes. However, I went with mumps because there's a vaccination for mumps, and looking forward, it would be nice if we had a vaccination for Zika virus.


"Teratogenic Causes of Malformation" by E. Gilbert-Barness in the Annals of Laborratory & Clinical Sciences in 2010.

Rubin SA, Carbone KM. Mumps. In: Kasper D, Fauci A, Hauser S, Longo D, Jameson J, Loscalzo J. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2015.