Dahl's Heartbreaking Letter Promotes Vaccines

Most of us know novelist Roald Dahl as the author of whimsical, dark children’s books, including James and the Giant Peach (1960), ­Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), and Matilda (1988). However, the beloved British author was also a staunch advocate for childhood vaccinations. His dedication to children’s health had a heart wrenching source: the 1962 death of his eldest daughter, Olivia, to measles. Olivia was only 7 years old when she succumbed to the disease. Twenty-six years later, Dahl wrote an emotional essay urging parents to vaccinate their children, and described the tragic role that measles had played in his own life. The essay was published in a pamphlet for the Sandwell Health Authority in 1988, and, given the recent outbreak of measles in California, it's something we could all bear to read:

Measles: A Dangerous Illness

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

“I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was twenty-four years ago in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction from measles as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her.

On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it.

It is not yet generally accepted that measles can be a dangerous illness. Believe me, it is. In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out.

Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, either out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to be immunised, we still have a hundred thousand cases of measles every year. Out of those, more than 10,000 will suffer side effects of one kind or another. At least 10,000 will develop ear or chest infections. About 20 will die.


Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from measles.

So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised?

They are almost non-existent. Listen to this. In a district of around 300,000 people, there will be only one child every 250 years who will develop serious side effects from measles immunisation! That is about a million to one chance. I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation.

So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised.

The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never too late. All school-children who have not yet had a measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was ‘James and the Giant Peach’. That was when she was still alive. The second was ‘The BFG’, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles. You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books. And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

In light of the recent outbreaks of measles in California and elsewhere, it is almost painful to read Dahl’s confident assertion that “In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out.” There is a terrible, infuriating irony in the fact that Dahl holds up the United States as an example for Britain to follow when, in fact, the United States is now in danger of a serious measles outbreak across the country. Originally traced back to California’s Disneyland, the outbreak has so far spread to six states and affected at least 70 people. Most of those infected with measles have been unvaccinated — a few because they were too young for vaccines, but most by their own choice or that of their parents. In choosing not to vaccinate themselves or their children, “anti-vaxxers” put not only themselves at risk, but also children who, due to age or illness, are medically incapable of being vaccinated. These children — and many, many more — are in danger of serious disease, and even death, because of what Dahl describes as the “obstinacy or ignorance or fear” of parents who refuse to immunize their children.

As Dahl so compellingly points out, the measles vaccine is safe, effective, and widely available. There’s no excuse.

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