Immunization Nation: Rhett Krawitt’s push for children’s vaccines and public health

Kana Kojima

At only two and a half years old, Rhett Krawitt was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, the most common type of childhood blood cancer. The years following his diagnosis were spent in chemotherapy, which compromised Rhett’s immune system and prevented him from receiving his necessary vaccinations against several diseases such as mumps, rubella and chickenpox. Today, Rhett Krawitt is an eighth-grader at Del Mar Middle School, and is an ardent advocate for youth vaccination. 

Laying in a hospital bed, Rhett Krawitt was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at just two and a half years old. (Photo courtesy of Carl Krawitt)

In 2015, when Rhett was six years old, two children in Marin were diagnosed with measles following an outbreak that occurred in December 2014 at Disneyland. Due to his inability to get the measles vaccine, Rhett was at high risk of catching the virus. His unique and prevalent story catapulted him and his family into the national news. With this new platform, the Krawitt family took it as an opportunity to pursue public health advocacy, with pediatric vaccination at the forefront of their mission. From television interviews to testifying before legislatures, Rhett and his family’s story captured audiences around the country, and their fight has revived as a result of the pandemic. 

“My family and I advocated in the region and school districts to try to get kids to get vaccinated [previously],” Rhett said. “Today, we restarted that campaign with COVID-19 and the vaccines for that.” 

Due to the great controversy surrounding vaccines in general, Rhett said his goal is to do as much as he can as a teenager, and continue spreading his story to show others the importance of protecting one another. 

“There’s always going to be that group of people who are so far anti-vax that they just won’t do it, but I know [that] as long as we keep advocating for these vaccines that we know work, more and more people will eventually get them,” Rhett said.

Prior to COVID-19, when they were advocating for the measles vaccine, the Krawitt family was no stranger to national news. The family was featured on several news organizations such as NPR, PBS Frontline and CNN during the time of the measles outbreak. Carl Krawitt, Rhett’s father, was a prominent figure in those interviews, and noted that this media exposure was the first step towards finding his passion for achieving public health. 

“Because we were on the news, we really felt like we had a responsibility and an obligation to make sure more people got vaccinated,” Carl said. 

Rhett’s rare, first hand experience with immunocompromisation connected him significantly with the cause. His childhood experience has brought about a sense of determination to help the people who are going through what he once did.

“Now that I’ve been able to get vaccinated for everything that there is right now, I am extra aware of the other kids and adults who aren’t able to, the way I wasn’t before,” Rhett said. “It’s a lot more important to do it for your community, and not for yourself.”

The Krawitt family campaigns for the health of all members in their community, and specifically targets legislation and public policy. When faced with the media spotlight in 2015, the Krawitts specifically advocated for the now-passed bill, SB-277, which prevented unvaccinated children from enrolling in California schools. 

“I’m happy we advocated for [SB-277], because it had a really positive effect,” Rhett said. “Marin County saw an increase in childhood vaccination rates from 78 percent all the way to 95 percent in just two or three years.” 

Advocating for the passage of SB-277, Rhett explains how the California bill (now passed) will help other children stay healthy in the future. (Photo courtesy of Carl Krawitt)

More recently, Rhett spoke to the Marin Board of Supervisors to share his story and to talk about the importance of children’s vaccinations. Annesley Krawitt, Rhett’s older sister and a sophomore at Redwood, expressed her pride for her younger brother, applauding his growing independence. 

“During the time of the measles outbreak, Rhett was still young enough where his speeches weren’t necessarily his writing. Now he’s writing the speeches mostly on his own, and I think that’s one of his ways of showing how he’s truly grown with [his] cause,” Annesley said. “His dedication to helping others really inspires me.” 

Marin County is a success story when it comes to overall vaccination. For decades prior, the county has been known for low childhood vaccination rates. In 2011, only 77.9 percent of kindergarten students in Marin were vaccinated. As of 2019, that number skyrocketed to an impressive 94.3 percent. With the recent approval of COVID-19 vaccinations for children ages five to 11, which Rhett testified for to the Marin Board of Supervisors, Marin is well on its way to maximizing public health. 

“We all live our lives hoping we can make a positive impact on others,” Carl said. “I am really proud of the work we have done so far and all of the efforts that we made, although it wasn’t just us, you know, it was public health officers, politicians [and] our school board. But we were a part of it.” 

Sharing his inspiring story, Rhett speaks at the Huffman Town Hall in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Carl Krawitt)

Being Rhett’s father, Carl has watched him grow and develop from a special perspective. Not only is he proud of Rhett’s formal accomplishments, but also his development as a young teenager. 

“Recently, when [Rhett] testified at the board meeting, I said, ‘Rhett, why didn’t you say that one line in the speech?’ And Rhett goes, ‘Because that’s only your line. I want to say things that we would as a team,’” Carl said. “I think that is one of the things I’m really proud of. As he’s getting older, I’ve seen how he’s grown a voice of his own and wants to do more of these things on his own.” 

Rhett shared his view on youth vaccines to the Marin Board of Supervisors through the lens of his story, telling county officials that parents and kids need to do their part to help our community. 

“One of my main messages to the parents was that it’s still so important that [their child] gets the vaccine so they can protect other kids who are either too young to get it or are like the way I was before—just [unable] to get vaccinated,” Rhett said.

An article from the Marin Independent Journal covered this board meeting, where Rhett concluded his speech via Zoom with a hopeful statement regarding COVID-19:

“Let’s show the world that, in Marin, we understand science, and that everyone, including kids, can help end this pandemic by getting vaccinated,” Rhett said.