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updated 4/21/2011 1:05:10 PM ET 2011-04-21T17:05:10

Europe is experiencing a major outbreak of measles, with France hardest hit by three-quarters of the more than 6,500 cases reported in 33 nations, the World Health Organization said Thursday.

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The U.N. health agency in Geneva there have been 4,937 reported cases in France between January and March — compared with 5,090 during all of 2010.

WHO officials blamed the recent outbreak on a failure to vaccinate all children.

"This is a lot of cases, to put it mildly. In past years we've had very few cases," said Rebecca Martin, head of WHO's office in Copenhagen for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization.

"There's been a buildup of children who have not been immunized over the years," she said. "It's almost like a threshold. When you have enough people who have not been immunized, then outbreaks can occur."

In particular, Martin said, WHO has found that young people between the ages of 10 and 19 have not been getting immunized as they should.

To prevent measles outbreaks, officials need to vaccinate about 90 percent of the population. But vaccination rates across Europe have been patchy in recent years and have never fully recovered from a discredited British study published in 1998 linking the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella to autism. Parents abandoned the vaccine in droves and vaccination rates for parts of the U.K. dropped to about 50 percent.

The disease has become so widespread in Europe in recent years that travelers from the continent have occasionally exported the disease to regions including the U.S. and Africa.

Around Europe, Spain reported more than 600 cases in Andalusia in two outbreaks since October: Sevilla had more than 350 cases; Granada, about 250 cases.

Macedonia reported 636 cases since September, including 400 this year, with the capital, Skopje, most affected.

WHO said outbreaks and rising case numbers also were reported in Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Russia and Switzerland.

Martin's office monitors 53 nations throughout Europe and extending to central Asia, but she said 80 percent of the outbreak was occurring in Western nations.

She said the high number of cases in France isn't due to better reporting of the disease, since the nation's reporting ability isn't significantly better or worse than that of other European nations.

"In fact, there are probably more cases. If anything this probably a lower number than we'd expect," she said, since quite a few children have not gotten immunized as they should have in that country.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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