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This parent of a 6-year-old in remission from leukemia has a strong message for people who choose not to vaccinate their kids.

January 28, 2015

Things have gotten a little more heated in the vaccination debate, which was rebooted earlier this month after a measles outbreak was tied to unvaccinated children who visited California's Disneyland parks.

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Now, one California parent of a 6-year-old in remission from leukemia has a strong message for parents against vaccinations.

Carl Krawitt of Marin County, near San Francisco, told NPR, "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."

Krawitt and his wife have emailed the superintendent of their son Rhett's school to “require immunization as a condition of attendance, with the only exception being those who cannot medically be vaccinated,” reports NPR. While school officials are "monitoring the situation closely," no official action is planned as of yet.

Rhett cannot receive a measles vaccination due to a weakened immune system. Until he's back to full health, Rhett can only rely on the people around him to get vaccinated so they can't pass the disease on to him, they said.

It's a concept called herd immunity, meaning the more people who get vaccinated, the less likely a contagious disease is to spread to people--often the elderly, chronically ill, or infants--who can't get a vaccine. Herd immunity also protects people who have been vaccinated. At least six people in the Disneyland outbreak had been vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although vaccines protect against diseases, not everyone reacts well enough to be fully protected--so herd immunity can help them stay healthy too. At least 68 people from 11 states were reported to have measles, according to the CDC, including five who were too young to be vaccinated.

Unfortunately for Rhett and his family, they happen to live in a Bay Area county where many parents don't believe in vaccinations or worry about the health risks--although numerous studies have shown vaccines are not associated with a risk of autism, a theory that has long been debunked. In fact, 7.8% of Marin County parents opted out of vaccines for their children last year, citing "personal beliefs." That's the highest in the Bay Area and one of the highest in the state, reports local public media outlet KQED.

Most of these opt-out policies still allow families to send their kids to school, despite being unvaccinated for measles, chicken pox, and whooping cough, another disease making a comeback.

"When your immune system isn’t working as well, it allows many different infections to be worse,” Rhett's oncologist Dr. Robert Goldsby told NPR. "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.”

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Even some doctor's offices may be off-limits to unvaccinated children. This week, a Reddit user posted a photo from her pediatrician's office with this message: Although I respect each person’s free choice, I have a bigger responsibility to all of the patients I care for. Because of this, the office no longer accepts new patients who have decided not to immunize their children.”

Still, even children who aren't vaccinated require education and care. "After all, it’s the parents, not the children, who make the choice to avoid vaccines—what is my responsibility to those kids?," notes Dr. Sydney Spiesel in an essay for Slate, written last March.

It's a tricky question for many physicians and educators amidst a debate that probably won't reach a conclusion for some time. The bottom line is vaccinations are the only medically proven way to give kids a chance to avoid a wide variety of dangerous infections.

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