"I recognize that some of the concerns parents have about vaccinations come from a place of wanting to do the best to protect their children," he added. But "I believe that on this topic, the science is very clear."
Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have attributed the spread to communities, some in California, where larger than average groups of people decline to have their children vaccinated for personal reasons or because they mistrust the vaccine. A discredited 1998 study suggested that the measles vaccine could cause autism, but belief in that idea persists.
President Obama has urged parents to immunize children. But Republican Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a likely presidential candidate, said Monday he believes most vaccines should be voluntary and, on the same day, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called for "some measure of choice" on whether injections that protect children against measles and other disease should be required.
Update: On Wednesday, likely GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush said that "parents ought to make sure their children are vaccinated."
Murthy noted that physicians have a small amount of flexibility in the vaccine schedule for parents who find it difficult to see children receive multiple injections at one visit. But the government's recommended immunization schedule, and the vaccines themselves have been repeatedly studied and determined safe and optimally effective, he said.
Measles is highly contagious, so pockets of unvaccinated people, children too young to be inoculated and people who cannot be immunized because of other health problems are vulnerable to the virus, which is best known by a rash of red dots on the skin. Most people recover, but complications can include pneumonia, deafness, brain swelling and, in rare cases, death.
Like Ebola, measles entered the United States from other parts of the world where much larger outbreaks have been raging. But in this case, Murthy said, "we have a vaccine that is proven safe and effective. We can protect ourselves [and] protect those around us."