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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Measles cases in England and Wales rose by more than 70 percent in 2008 from the previous year, mostly because of unvaccinated children, government health officials said on Friday.
The third straight annual rise underscores the lingering impact of a since-discredited 1998 study linking the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) shot to autism -- a claim that made many parents refuse to get their children vaccinated.
The number of reported measles cases in England and Wales rose to 1,348 in 2008, from 990 a year earlier, the Health Protection Agency said.
The number of children who have received their first dose of the vaccine by their second birthday has risen to about 80 percent.
But that is still well below the 95 percent vaccination coverage needed to confer so-called herd immunity to people in the general population who do not receive the vaccines.
"There are still many children out there who were not vaccinated as toddlers over the past decade and remain unprotected," Mary Ramsay, an immunization expert at the agency, said in a statement.
"Unfortunately this means that measles, which is highly infectious, is spreading easily among these unvaccinated children."
David Salisbury, head of immunization at the Department of Health, said that despite the rise, the number of cases was still relatively low against the epidemics experienced before the measles and MMR vaccines were introduced.
Before the MMR vaccine there were about 80,000 cases of measles, he told BBC radio.
"But we shouldn't be having 1,300 cases. We should be having hopefully no cases because measles is a disease that you simply would not wish your children to have. You don't take risks with your children's lives and children's health," he said.
Salisbury said measles killed one child in Britain last year. Out of the total number of cases he said 10 percent would have short-term complications after contracting the disease, while one percent would suffer longer-term difficulties.
Although many people view it as a relatively harmless childhood virus, measles kills about 250,000 people a year globally, mostly children in poor nations. Parents' refusal to have their children vaccinated has caused a rise in measles cases in the United States and parts of Europe in recent years.
In January, researchers reported that too many children remain unvaccinated against measles for Europe to have any realistic hope of eliminating the disease by 2010, citing Romania, Germany, Britain, Switzerland and Italy as countries with some of the lowest vaccination coverage.
Many studies have debunked the notion that vaccinations can cause autism, and public health experts agree that immunizations save millions of lives every year. (Reporting by Michael Kahn; additional reporting by Stefano Ambrogi; Editing by Steve Addison)