A dad's crusade to keep unvaccinated kids out of school

When does "freedom" put other children at serious risk?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 29, 2015 7:41PM (EST)

Rhett Krawitt     (Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage)
Rhett Krawitt (Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage)

We Americans take our notions of personal freedom very seriously. And the only thing we are more protective of than our individual rights are our rights around how we raise our children. You could gather together a broad spectrum of parents, with deeply opposing social and political viewpoints and child rearing styles, and you'd easily be able to get them to join hands in outrage over a phrase like "nanny state." Then again – just vaccinate your kids, people.

The anti-vaccine movement has managed to gain an alarming amount of legitimacy in recent years, propelled by high profile Concerned Moms like Jenny McCarthy and Kristin Cavallari, as well as media-friendly pediatricians like Dr. Jay Gordon, who claims to have signed hundreds of "personal belief exemptions" for parents who choose not to vaccinate their children against diseases like measles and polio. Recently, Gordon reassured CBS News, "Measles is almost an always a benign childhood illness." Yet as vaccine rates have dropped in certain areas – often, notably, in affluent, educated hotspots -- once previously all but eliminated illnesses have been seeing a strong return. And in California this month, a measles outbreak that seems to have originated in Disneyland has made painfully clear the consequences of refusing to vaccinate.

Now, a Marin county father is trying to change the odds – and with a compelling personal reason. Carl Krawitt's six year-old son Rhett was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010. The boy endured four years of chemotherapy, and, happily, is now considered in remission. But while his immune system is still recovering from the experience, he is not yet able to receive his vaccinations, and it may be months before he can. In the meantime, however, he's living in the California county with one of the state's highest rates of "personal belief" exemptions -- 6.45 percent.

Carl Krawitt says that all of the children in his son's elementary school class are vaccinated, but his school itself has a seven percent exemption rate. And now he and his wife are asking the district to "require immunization as a condition of attendance, with the only exception being those who cannot medically be vaccinated." As Krawitt explained to NPR this week, "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." And as Rhett's oncologist, Dr. Robert Goldsby, says, "It's not just Rhett. 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."

During my two years in cancer treatment, I couldn't even get a flu shot, even as my immune system was working through some heavy stuff. I had to just wash my hands regularly, and hope my vaccinated family and friends would keep me safe from becoming ill -- possibly very seriously. No child, and certainly no child who's already been through years of chemo, should be expected to compromise his or her well-being because some other child's parent is taking a possibly dangerously ill-informed stance about vaccinations. No parent who has sat by a child's hospital bedside should have to fret about sending him to school -- which is why I'm grateful that here in New York, public school children are required to be in compliance with vaccination schedules.

County health officer Dr. Matt Willis told the New York Times Wednesday that "I obviously have to balance the responsibility to control communicable disease with everybody's right to freedom, and the line right now would basically be if there’s a case in this school. This is a decision being made and applied to a school community based on the fact that these children are collected together at the school." But you know, "freedom" is a word that is far too often used as a excuse to do stupid, harmful things. You have the "freedom" to do things as far they only affect you. When Kristin Cavallari says "I'm trying to make the best decision for my kid," she's ignoring that her kid lives in a world surrounded by other kids. When Dr. Jay Gordon calls measles "almost always benign," he sure seems to be forgetting about its potential for children who've experienced cancer and other diseases. To act as if our children exist in a bubble, that our sole responsibility is what we believe is right for them, with no regard for how our choices affect others, is selfish and plain dumb. And while I get that nobody likes being told what to do, the social contract that we make when we put ourselves and our kids into the world is that sometimes we do have to do things not just for ourselves but the good of the group. So don't just vaccinate your kid for his or her sake. Vaccinate for Rhett Krawitt's.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Anti Vaccine Movement Dr. Jay Gordon Jenny Mccarthy Kristin Cavallari Measles Vaccinations Vaccines