August 22, 2008
 Measles Cases Grow in Number, and Officials Blame Parents' Fear of Autism By

More people had
in the first seven months of this year than during any comparable
period since 1996, and public health officials blamed growing numbers of
parents who refuse to vaccinate their children.

Many of these parents say they believe vaccines cause
even though multiple studies have found no reputable evidence to support
such a claim. In Britain, Switzerland, Israel and Italy, measles outbreaks
have soared, sickening thousands and causing at least two deaths.

From January through July, 131 measles cases were reported to the Centers
for Disease Control and
15 states and the District of Columbia. Fifteen people, including four
infants, were hospitalized. There were no deaths. Nearly all the cases
resulted when people traveling abroad or visiting from a foreign country
spread the illness to others. In Illinois, 30 people were sickened in one

Most of those who were sickened were unvaccinated or had an unknown
vaccination status. Sixteen were younger than a year old, too young to have
been vaccinated. But two-thirds of the rest  or 63 people  were
unvaccinated because of their or their parents' philosophical or religious

Public health advocates have become alarmed in recent years over a growing
number of people who contend that vaccines cause illnesses, particularly
autism. The number of parents who claim a philosophical exemption to
mandatory vaccine laws has grown.

Nonetheless, vaccination rates have remained relatively high in the United
States. In 2006, 95 percent of school-age children received at least one
shot of the combined measles,
according to the C.D.C. But such surveys are often years behind
vaccination trends, and government officials say the growing number of
measles outbreaks suggests that overall vaccination rates may be on the

Because it is virulently contagious, measles is often the first
vaccine-preventable disease to reappear when vaccination rates decline. In
the decade before the measles vaccination program began, each year nearly 4
million people in the United States were infected, 48,000 were hospitalized,
1,000 were chronically disabled and nearly 500 died.

Autism and antivaccines advocates are unapologetic about the return of

"Most parents I know will take measles over autism," said J. B. Handley,
co-founder of Generation Rescue, a parent-led organization that contends
that autism is a treatable condition caused by vaccines.

It is an attitude that pediatricians say they are increasingly having to

"All pediatricians are spending more time speaking with parents about the
rationale for vaccines," said Dr. Andrew D. Racine, director of the division
of general pediatrics<>at
the Children's Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx.

Responding to parents' concerns, manufacturers in 2001 almost entirely
removed a preservative containing mercury from all routinely administered
childhood vaccines. The incidence of autism has shown no drop.

Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
Boston University

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