Six-year-old Rhett Krawitt has undergone four years of chemotherapy for leukemia. Although he’s now in remission, his immune system has been weakened from rounds of treatment, so he’s not eligible for the recommended childhood vaccines. Rhett is dependent on what’s called “herd immunity,” relying on high vaccination rates among the general population to protect him from disease outbreaks.
But Rhett lives in an area of California that has a particularly high number of parents opting to skip out on their kids’ vaccines. About seven percent of schoolchildren in his district have claimed a personal belief exemption, which allows them to forgo their shots for non-medical reasons. Now, amid the current measles outbreak that originated at Disneyland and has spread rapidly throughout the state, infecting more than 70 Californians, Rhett’s parents are worried. They’re asking the superintendent of his Marin County school district to tell unvaccinated kids to stay home.
“I respect people’s choices about what to do with their kids, but if someone’s kid gets sick and gets my kid sick, too, that’s a problem,” Rhett’s dad, Carl Krawitt, told the New York Times. “What we need to do, for all our children, is increase the herd immunity.”
Krawitt and his wife emailed the school’s superintendent this week, asking that Rhett’s district “require immunization as a condition of attendance, with the only exception being those who cannot medically be vaccinated.”
Some schools in the area have already started taking this step as a precaution against measles, which is one of the most contagious infectious diseases out there. Dozens of unvaccinated students have recently been sent home from schools in Palm Springs and Huntington Beach. In nearby Maricopa County, Arizona, the health department has identified more than 200 children who may have come into contact with people who have recently contracted measles, and has requested that unvaccinated children take a leave of absence from classes.
It’s not necessarily a radical move. New York City has an existing policy, for instance, that allows schools to ban unvaccinated kids from attending classes when another child has come down with a vaccine preventable illness. This past summer, a federal judge upheld that law in court, concluding that the city’s strict vaccine requirements fall under the government’s right to protect public health.
Fortunately for Rhett, there haven’t been any measles cases reported so far in Marin County. The county health officer, Dr. Matt Willis, isn’t prepared to issue a policy regarding unvaccinated students yet, although he might reconsider if the current measles outbreak gets worse.
Rhett’s case ultimately highlights the fact that the trend toward non-medical vaccine exemptions — which has been directly linked to a rise in preventable disease outbreaks throughout the United States — can have serious consequences for the Americans who rely on herd immunity. Particularly since the families that have chosen not to vaccinate tend to cluster together in the same communities, it makes it more likely that diseases will spread to people who can’t get inoculated.
“When your immune system isn’t working as well, it allows many different infections to be worse. It’s not just Rhett,” the six-year-old’s oncologist, Dr. Robert Goldsby, told NPR. “There are hundreds of other kids in the Bay Area that are going through cancer therapy, and it’s not fair to them. They can’t get immunized; they have to rely on their friends and colleagues and community to help protect them.”
In addition to kids with compromised immune systems, children under the age of 12 months are too young to get the shots that protect them against measles. This outbreak puts them particularly at risk because the disease can be very serious for young children, even causing lifelong brain damage in some cases. More than 30 babies in Northern California have recently been placed in isolation after possibly being exposed to the disease.
Six-month-old Livia Simon is one of them. After Livia’s parents took her to the pediatrician’s office to be treated for a cold, their doctor called to say that a child with measles was in the office that same day — a child whose parents had chosen to opt out of vaccination. They have had to take off work and rearrange their schedules to accommodate a 28-day isolation period.
“I’ve been upset that someone else’s personal choice has impacted us so much,” Jennifer Simon, Livia’s mom, told CNN this week. “Their choice endangered my child.”
As more kids are heading off to school without getting their recommended shots, some state lawmakers have cracked down on vaccine exemptions, tightening the requirements so parents can’t opt out based on their “personal beliefs.” Amid the rising number of measles cases in California, some people are calling on legislators there to follow suit. “This is the perfect time for the Legislature to pass a new bill banning the personal-belief exemption for public-school students,” the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times wrote on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Rhett’s dad says that he still has to go back to the doctor every month for blood work. Now, when they make the trip, he asks, “Can I get immunized yet?”