Rhett Krawitt is a six-year-old first grader from California. He has been fighting leukemia for over 4 years of his short life. After many rounds of chemotherapy, doctors say Rhett is in remission. That’s certainly good news, but now Rhett and his parents face another battle: keeping him healthy while he attends school.
The Krawitts live in Marin County, California, which has the highest rate of “personal belief exemptions” from vaccinations in the San Francisco Bay area, according to KQED. Fortunately, SFGate reports that the trend in parents choosing the exemption, which allows them to send their children to school without being vaccinated against diseases such as measles and whooping cough, is beginning to reverse. The percentage of kindergarteners who arrived at school unvaccinated thanks to the exemption more than doubled between 2002 and 2012, from 3.7 percent to 7.8 percent. By the end of 2014, that figure dropped to 6.5 percent, thanks to a new law that requires parents who don’t want their children to be vaccinated, to have a conversation with a health care provider.
While it is good that the number of unvaccinated children seems to be declining, being around any unvaccinated person is not good for Rhett Krawitt.
The chemotherapy that Rhett received to treat his leukemia played havoc with his immune system. That means at the moment he is very vulnerable to diseases like measles. Rhett cannot get vaccinated himself yet, because of his weak immune system, which needs to recover before he can receive the standard childhood vaccines. Right now, Rhett relies on something called “herd immunity” to protect him from disease.
Herd immunity means that when enough people in a community are vaccinated, those like Rhett, who cannot be vaccinated, are protected. The federal government’s Healthy People website says that at least 90 percent of people have to be vaccinated in order to provide herd immunity for others. This year, SFGate says that Reed Elementary in Tiburon, where Rhett attends school, has a personal belief exemption rate of close to seven percent.
Rhett’s dad fights the anti-vaxxers.
Carl Krawitt, Rhett’s father, is upset at the parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. He says,
It’s very emotional for me. If you choose not to immunize your own child and your own child dies because they get measles, OK, that’s your responsibility, that’s your choice. But if your child gets sick and gets my child sick and my child dies, then … your action has harmed my child.
KQED says that Krawitt has worked with the school nurse at Reed Elementary in order to make sure that all the children in Rhett’s class are vaccinated. He says that the district has been very helpful in that regard. Now, Krawitt and his wife, Jodi, are taking their fight one step further. They have asked Reed Union School District Superintendent Stephen Herzog to require all students to be vaccinated, except those who cannot receive vaccinations for medical reasons, like Rhett. Herzog’s reply did not directly address Krawitt’s concern. It says, “We are monitoring the situation closely and will take whatever actions necessary to ensure the safety of our students.”
KQED Reporter Lisa Aliferis contacted Marin County health officer Matt Willis, who told her that there were currently no known cases of measles in the area. But, Willis says, if there is an outbreak, telling parents to keep unvaccinated children home from school is “a step we might want to consider.”
Carl Krawitt points out how crazy it is to allow unvaccinated children in school, when compared to other school policies. Krawitt relates a story about attending a parent meeting at his daughter’s school. A staff member there asked parents to please not send peanuts and peanut products to school with their children, because so many children have peanut allergies. Krawitt says he asked, “In the interest of the health and safety of our children, can we have the assurance that all the kids at our school are immunized?”
Krawitt says he learned later that other parents were angry that he asked the question, because their children are not immunized.
The anti-vaccination hysteria is largely due to one discredited doctor.
It is a shame that so many parents have bought into the junk science of the anti-vaccination crowd. The panic and concern over the claimed link between vaccinations and autism is largely thanks to one man, Dr. Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield published a study in the British medical journal, The Lancet, in 1999 that claimed a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, and worsening of autism. An investigative journalist named Brian Deer found that Wakefield was connected with trial lawyers who were planning on suing vaccine manufacturers. That connection was established before Wakefield began adding patients to his study.
Wakefield was investigated by the British Medical Council, which called his conduct “irresponsible and dishonest.” The study was withdrawn. But the genie was out of the bottle, and, thanks to the internet, Wakefield’s lies persist, putting Rhett Krawitt, and possibly thousands, or even tens of thousands of other children, at risk for diseases that a generation ago were no longer much of a concern.
Image via Carl Krawitt/KQED