Health officials are urging parents to get children immunized against measles as the number of cases in the region spikes and outbreaks around the country hit 15-year highs.

"I'm very concerned. The average case of measles is very serious," said Dr. Lorry Rubin, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Cohen's Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park.

Nassau County has had three cases so far this year: a 9-month-old baby in February; and two adults in May.

This week, New York City's health department issued an alert after three more people were diagnosed with the highly contagious respiratory disease, bringing the number of cases since January to 13.

All of those infected are expected to recover, health officials said. Suffolk County has not reported any cases this year.

"We are trying to get the word out. Especially people who are traveling abroad -- but really just everybody -- should have the measles vaccine," said Peter Constantakes of the state Health Department.

Health officials declared measles eliminated in the United States in 2000, mostly due to the protection offered by the measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, vaccine. Today, however, there are pockets of the population where the disease spreads because of a lack of immunization, officials say.

Measles is spread like a cold, through the air and by direct contact with infected nasal or throat secretions. Symptoms start with a runny nose, cough and slight fever, which could last two to four days. That's followed by a red, blotchy skin rash.

"Most physicians and most people have never really seen a case of measles, so it's easy to be complacent about it," Rubin said.

Rubin and other officials say purported links between childhood vaccines and autism -- debunked in numerous studies -- have caused some parents to avoid vaccinating their babies.

It is recommended that children get an initial MMR dose when they are 12 to 15 months old and another at 4 to 6 years for lifelong immunity. The vaccine is required for entry into most public schools but parents in New York and other states are allowed exemptions based on religious beliefs.

Most of the U.S. measles cases are thought to have been contracted abroad, where the disease has surged.

Nationally, there have been 118 measles cases this year through May 20 -- the most since 1996 if the pace continues, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. usually sees about 50 cases a year.

Dr. Greg Wallace, a CDC disease researcher, said he's most worried about people who are too young or unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons.

"Those who have a choice and chose not to get vaccinated are putting them at risk," he said.

With Jeremy Schneider

Latest videos