By Elise Viebeck - 05/29/14 02:02 PM EDT
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is blaming a dramatic spike in measles cases on people who refuse to vaccinate themselves and their children against the disease.
The federal agency reported Thursday that measles outbreaks have reached a 20-year high and could increase further as unvaccinated U.S. residents travel during the summer.
Thanks to vaccines, it is technically considered "eliminated" in the United States, though a resurgence in cases is taking place around the country. CDC officials did not mince words in explaining who they believe is to blame.
"The current increase in measles cases is being driven by unvaccinated people, primarily U.S. residents, who got measles in other countries, brought the virus back to the United States and spread to others in communities where many people are not vaccinated," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases.
A total of 288 cases of measles were reported to the CDC between Jan. 1 and May 23, the largest number in the first five months of a year since 1994, according to the agency.
Officials urged doctors to stress the importance of vaccination and stay alert for symptoms of the measles virus. Most U.S. clinicians have never seen or treated a case of the disease because it is so rare.
The agency's statement is likely to stoke debate about the growing movement against vaccines in the United States. The cause has prominent advocates, like talk-show host Jenny McCarthy, who believe the widely disputed claim that vaccines cause autism.