A government advisory committee yesterday recommended spending $50 million a year more on a stepped-up vaccination program to head off a major epidemic of measles.

More than 25,000 cases of the illness were reported in the United States last year and there were 60 deaths, nearly half of them among unvaccinated preschoolers.

That was up nearly 40 percent from the 18,000 cases reported the previous year and 10 times the cases reported in 1983. The risk is highest among black and Hispanic inner-city children, the committee said.

"Ideally, immunizations should be given as one part of a comprehensive child health care program," the National Vaccine Advisory Committee said in its report. "However, the delivery of immunization -- our most cost-effective service -- cannot await the development of the ideal" program.

"Immunization is the single most cost-effective intervention in health," committee chairman D.A. Henderson said in a statement. "It has not been given adequate priority."

The American Academy of Pediatricians urged Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan to put the committee's recommendations into effect quickly and end a period of federal neglect on the issue.

"These recommendations reflect the realization that too many American children do not have adequate access to the preventive health services they need," said James Strain, executive director of the academy, calling the situation "a shameful commentary on this nation's priorities."

The chief reason cited for the resurgence of measles, the most contagious of childhood diseases, was failure to vaccinate children at the recommended age, 15 months.

The committee said physicians may not offer immunization or may decide inappropriately not to immunize, such as when a child has a minor illness. Also, welfare programs may not insist on it, and insurers may not pay for it.

"Given low immunization levels among young children, it is reasonable to suspect that there are substantial numbers of children now also susceptible to pertussis {whooping cough}, poliomyelitis, mumps and rubella. Likewise, Hemophilus disease, which is now preventable by vaccination, continues to be a serious problem," the report said.

Among the steps recommended by the panel are increased aid to state and local health departments and required coverage of immunization by insurers.