WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Parents refusing to have their children vaccinated against measles have helped drive cases of the illness to their worst levels in a dozen years in the United States, health officials reported on Thursday.
In 2008 alone, 131 cases of measles have been reported, with 15 serious enough to be hospitalized, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
Most of those infected were not vaccinated and there is no reason for any cases to occur when vaccines can prevent them, the CDC said in a weekly report on death and diseases.
“Measles can be a severe, life-threatening illness” the CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat said in a statement. “These cases resulted primarily from failure to vaccinate, many because of philosophical or religious belief.”
Only 13 percent of the cases were imported, the CDC said, naming Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, India, Israel, China, Germany, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Russia. “This is the lowest percentage of imported measles cases since 1996,” the CDC report reads.
At least 15 patients, including four children younger than 15, were hospitalized, although no one has died, the CDC said.
“In the decade before the measles vaccination program began, an estimated 3 to 4 million persons in the United States were infected each year. Of these, 400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and another 1,000 developed chronic disability from measles encephalitis.”
Encephalitis is a life-threatening inflammation of the brain that can be caused by viral infections such as measles.
More than 90 percent of the patients were not vaccinated, the CDC said, had no evidence of having been vaccinated, or were babies too young to have been vaccinated.
“Of the 95 patients eligible for vaccination, 63 were unvaccinated because of their or their parents’ philosophical or religious beliefs,” the CDC said.
Some religious groups refuse vaccination but many parents have fears that vaccines are unsafe or may cause conditions such as autism — fears the CDC says are unfounded.
“Increases in the proportion of the population declining vaccination for themselves or their children might lead to large-scale outbreaks in the United States,” the CDC said.
Outbreaks of measles are being reported now in Israel, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Britain among people who are declining the vaccine.
British health officials said in June that measles had again become endemic for the first time since the mid-1990s due to parents declining to get their children vaccinated.
The last serious U.S. outbreak was in 1989-1991, when 55,000 people got measles and 123 died. The CDC said 55 cases of measles were reported in 2006.
Measles kills about 250,000 people a year globally, mostly children in poor nations. The disease causes fever, coughing, irritation of the eyes and a rash. Serious complications include encephalitis and pneumonia that can be fatal.
“Measles knows no borders, but can be prevented for less than one dollar per child in a developing country. We must be steadfast in our efforts to reduce measles cases globally,” the Measles Initiative, which includes the American Red Cross, CDC and United Nations agencies, said in a statement.
Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Michael Kahn