WASHINGTON -- Calling for a $40 million increase in the measles immunization budget, President Bush launched a campaign yesterday to halt the epidemic that struck 27,000 American children last year, killing 89 of them in the most dramatic outbreak of the disease in 15 years.
"No child in America in the '90s should be at risk to deadly diseases" such as diphtheria, polio or measles, the president said at a Rose Garden ceremony attended by state and local health officials and children.
He urged parents, "Don't take a chance. Call your public health official or your physician. The vaccines are available."
The White House immunization drive will send a health "SWAT team" led by Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, secretary of health and human services, to Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego, Philadelphia, Detroit and Rapid City, S.D., to find out why so many children are not being vaccinated.
Research has showed that as many as 80 percent of low-income preschool children at public health clinics had not been immunized.
The Children's Defense Fund, a private lobbying group, contended that the $40 million proposed increase in the immunization budget should be doubled to cope with the measles epidemic.
The group said that the United States ranked 19th, behind Western Europe, in overall immunization against disease. It warned that cases of whooping cough and mumps were also increasing rapidly in the United States.
The fund attributed the rising numbers to a lack of health insurance coverage available to the poor, as well as federal failure to provide public clinics with funds for adequate supplies of vaccine or outreach facilities to reach families.
Mr. Bush acknowledged the urgency of a situation in which measles cases increased by 50 percent between 1989 and 1990. The disease mainly afflicted children under 5 who belong to low-income, often single-parent families in the inner cities or rural areas.
The immunization drive is also aimed at forestalling a worse situation in which unvaccinated children would fall prey to other diseases virtually eliminated, as measles once was, by preventive health care.
"Unless we act now, this shocking reality may forecast more serious problems," Dr. Sullivan warned.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has recently launched pilot projects that offer immunizations at welfare offices and family nutrition programs, where poor families come for other services. Such "one-stop" service is offered in New York, Jersey City and Chicago.