(State public health agency cites unvaccinated individuals as principal factor in outbreak)
By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES, Jan 23 (Reuters) - The leading U.S. pediatrician group on Friday urged parents, schools and communities to vaccinate children against measles in the face of an outbreak that began at Disneyland in California in December and has spread to more than 80 people in seven states and Mexico.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said all children should get the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella between 12 and 15 months of age and again between 4 and 6 years old.
"A family vacation to an amusement park - or a trip to the grocery store, a football game or school - should not result in children becoming sickened by an almost 100 percent preventable disease," Errol Alden, the group's executive director, said in a statement.
The California Department of Public Health has reported 68 confirmed measles cases among state residents since December, most linked to an initial exposure at Disneyland or its adjacent Disney California Adventure Park.
Fourteen more cases linked to Disney parks have been reported out of state - five in Arizona, three in Utah, two in Washington state and one each in Oregon, Colorado, Nevada and Mexico.
The outbreak is believed to have begun when an infected person, likely from out of the country, visited the resort in Anaheim between Dec. 15 and Dec. 20. The health department said others with measles are known to have visited Disney parks in January while infectious but did not elaborate.
Among those infected are at least five Disney employees and a student from a local high school that has ordered its unvaccinated students to stay home until Jan. 29.
The outbreak has renewed debate over the so-called anti-vaccination movement in which fears about potential side effects of vaccines, fueled by now-debunked theories suggesting a link to autism, have led a small minority of parents to refuse to allow their children to be inoculated.
The Los Angeles Times blasted the anti-vaccination movement in an editorial last week for what it called an "ignorant and self-absorbed rejection of science."
Asked if the anti-vaccination movement contributed to the latest outbreak in California, a spokesman for the state health department Carlos Villatoro, said in an email: "We think that unvaccinated individuals have been the principal factor."
Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center, a group calling for "informed consent" for parents regarding vaccinations, said the Disneyland outbreak had touched off a "media frenzy."
"There's a lot of name-calling going on rather than talking about substantive policy issues," she said.
Homegrown measles, whose symptoms include rash and fever, was declared eliminated from the United States in 2000. But health officials say cases imported by travelers from overseas continue to infect unvaccinated U.S. residents. The sometimes deadly virus, which is airborne, can spread swiftly among unvaccinated children.
There is no specific treatment for measles and most people recover within a few weeks. But in poor and malnourished children and people with reduced immunity, measles can cause serious complications including blindness, encephalitis, severe diarrhea, ear infection and pneumonia. (Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Susan Heavey and Mohammad Zargham)