Marin County teen credited with reversing vaccination trends

A Marin County teenager is credited with reversing vaccination trends, both in his home county and across California. 

Rhett Krawitt, 13, is a leukemia survivor who began his vaccine advocacy as a kindergartner.

Tuesday, he was honored at the Marin Civic Center, where state and local elected leaders presented him with framed proclamations.

"You have saved lives, thank you for your unwavering spirit of service to the community from a grateful county," read Board of Supervisors member Katie Rice.

They were not Krawitt's first accolades; he has won widespread attention.

But Marin is where his family's activism began, trying to keep their young son alive. 

"When I was 2 years old I was diagnosed with leukemia," Krawitt told KTVU.  "And I had to have chemotherapy and other treatments for more than 3 years."

His immune system shredded, Krawitt was unable to be vaccinated for childhood diseases as he entered kindergarten.

It raised a question for his parents: how could they protect Rhett at school?

"We asked, can we at least make sure his classmates are vaccinated so we know he's not being exposed?" recalled Jodi Krawitt, Rhett's mother.

At the time, Marin County was suffering a childhood measles outbreak and about 1 in 5 students had opted out of school-age vaccinations.

Voluntarily, students and staff at Reed Elementary School in Tiburon became fully-vaccinated in response to Rhett's plight. 

Then Rhett's mission, mandatory vaccination, began to snowball.

He spoke to his local school board, then the Board of Supervisors, standing on a chair to reach the podium.

At 7, he moved on to Congressional town halls, and the California legislature, to explain why vaccination should be regarded as a community responsibility rather than personal decision.

"We didn't really know what we were uncovering with our early requests to vaccinate all the kids, but then as we got more into it, we realized all the things that had to change," said Jodi.

Rhett's legislative lobbying helped pass state law eliminating the "personal choice" exemption for school-age vaccinations.

"People listened, they listened to Rhett's message and we're proud of him for that, it feels good," said father Carl Krawitt.

Marin County is honoring Rhett as a "vaccine champion" for expanding acceptance, well before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"You have a story, a lived experience and you really put a face on the reality of community immunity," said Dr. Matt Willis, in his remarks to Rhett during the ceremony.

In recent years, Marin has flipped, from one of the least vaccinated places in California and the nation, to one of the most vaccinated at 95 percent.

"He really changed our thinking about what are the rights of immunocompromised students," said Willis, "and when we were on the other end of the spectrum, Rhett Krawitt was an important piece of that change."

Marin Community Clinics pediatrician Dr. Tracey Hessel noted vaccine conversations shifted after people learned about Rhett.

"I think his voice was really important for changing the dialogue and the framework," said Hessel. "He's shouldered a lot and he also understands at a young age how to speak out and create great impact."

Rhett is humble but determined to keep up his campaign, and eager for COVID vaccines to win formal approval for children younger than himself. 

He admits, his activism sets him apart from his friends.

"This is all very different from what I would be doing if I was quote, unquote normal, but it's good, for a good cause," said Rhett.

He never imagined having such a  high-profile.

"Definitely not, I probably thought it would be one or two speeches and that's it, but its developed into this and produced a lot of positive results."

At home in Corte Madera with his parents and older sister, Rhett says passage of the bill ending the "opt out" loophole at schools, was a favorite milestone so far.

But the best? The day six years ago, he was declared in remission from leukemia.