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6-year-old leukemia survivor’s dad to school: make unvaccinated kids stay home

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Carl Krawitt's son, Rhett, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was two years old.
Carl Krawitt's son, Rhett, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was two years old.

A case of measles could be fatal for six-year-old leukemia survivor Rhett Krawitt. Now his father is asking school officials to send unvaccinated kids home.

The recent California measles outbreak has at least one Marin County father very worried, and with good reason. Carl Krawitt’s six-year-old son Rhett has been battling leukemia for the past four years. Although the cancer has entered remission, years of treatment have left Rhett’s immune system weak--too weak for him to be vaccinated against the highly communicable disease and too fragile for him to risk catching it. Compounding their worries is the area where they live, which boasts one of the state’s highest rates of “personal belief exemptions”--that is to say, a whopping 7% of the students who attend Rhett’s elementary school have never been vaccinated. Now Rhett’s father is asking school officials to step up and tell parents of unvaccinated students to keep their kids at home.

The onset of measles is similar to that of other infections, meaning it could take days for symptoms to be properly diagnosed. At a school where many students have not been vaccinated, this could put entire classrooms in danger. Pediatrician Dr. Janesri De Silva tells Take Two that the most severe cases can result in pneumonia or even encephalitis, a swelling of the brain that can lead to seizures and permanent brain damage. The infection is most problematic for young children and people with compromised immune systems; six-year-old Rhett falls into both categories, making the circumstances all the more worrisome. Rhett received his initial inoculation when he was younger, but the shot made him so sick that he was forced to wait until he had recovered before receiving his next round of chemotherapy treatment. Realizing how devastating a full infection could be, his father took a proactive approach toward guarding his son’s health and recovery.

“This is something that we’ve been talking about for a couple of years now,” Carl Krawitt tells Alex Cohen. “Before Rhett started kindergarten in the fall of 2013, we asked about this at the school, we knew it was a risk, his oncologist told us there would be a risk, especially in Marin where we live where the level of vaccination is not as high as we would like it to be to reach herd immunity.”  Ninety-three cases of measles have been reported in the country to date--79 of those in California. Krawitt says that county health officials and the district superintendent have been sympathetic to Rhett’s condition, but are reluctant to require all unvaccinated children to stay home because no cases of the measles have been reported in Marin County. Still, Carl says he will continue to push until he can be sure that Rhett will be safe, telling KPCC, “Our goal is not to keep people home from school, we just want to find another vehicle to force parents to have the conversation with their pediatrician and realize how important it is to immunize their kids, not just for their own kid’s safety, but to also protect those that are vulnerable like my son.”

While some parents in Marin County choose to observe their right to “personal belief exemptions,” many students in the Los Angeles Unified School District aren’t getting their regular vaccinations for another reason; their low-income parents haven’t had the time to take them to the clinic. Students entering school are required to be up-to-date on their vaccinations, but the district will allow students who have had at least one shot in each required category to continue attending class as a “conditional entrant.” As measles cases continue to rise, more parents are working to get their children the inoculations they need. SCPR’s Rebecca Plevin has the full story.

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