It’s been a big week for 7-year-old Rhett Krawitt.
On Tuesday, he stood on a folding chair at the podium to address his southern Marin school district’s board members and urged them to adopt a resolution in favor of ending the vaccine “personal belief exemption” in California. Television news crews lined one side of the auditorium. Rhett is recovering from cancer, and he’s become the face of the importance of widespread vaccination.
Because Rhett is recovering from years of chemotherapy, he’s been unable to be vaccinated. His immune system wasn’t strong enough.
This week, Rhett went in for a check up, and his family learned that he is now able to be immunized. On Friday, Rhett got the first round of vaccines.
“It’s such a milestone for us. It’s such a marking point in how far we’ve come.” said Rhett’s mother, Jodi Krawitt, in reference to Rhett being one year from the end of his treatment. She said she had wondered, “Would we ever get to this day? And here we are.”
Among the three shots Rhett received, perhaps the most important was the “MMR” — measles, mumps, rubella. This first of two doses offers 95 percent protection against measles, the disease of greatest concern to the Krawitts in light of the ongoing outbreak in California.
“It’s a lot of emotions altogether,” Jodi Krawitt said. “It’s one of those things you think you’d never get excited about, getting a shot.”
Carl and Jodi gained national attention after their story was first told on State of Health. They advocate a change in state policy to eliminate the personal belief exemption which permits parents to lawfully send their children to school unvaccinated.
Rhett had been vaccinated against many illnesses before he was diagnosed with leukemia when he was two. But three years of chemotherapy wiped out the protection of the vaccines. While he was undergoing chemotherapy, his parents kept him isolated to protect him, they said. He missed years of pre-school.
But he was well enough to start kindergarten on time, when he was five.
Then came a new fear — measles. Rhett, and anyone else with a weak immune system, relies on herd immunity. That’s when so many people in a community, such as a school, are vaccinated, that if a disease is introduced, it cannot spread. While the overwhelming majority of parents in Marin vaccinate their children, the county has a personal belief exemption rate triple the statewide average, 6.45 percent. Pockets within the county have refusal rates significantly higher.
While Rhett’s parents are delighted by their son’s recovery, their commitment to the importance of vaccination goes on. “This is not about Rhett,” Carl Krawitt said, “It’s about the expecting mothers, children under one, [too young to be vaccinated against some diseases] and hundreds of kids across the Bay Area going through chemotherapy.”
Herd immunity protects immunocompromised adults, too, including people being treated for cancer or people living with HIV.