Health

‘In 12 Hours She Was Dead’: Read Roald Dahl’s Heartbreaking Letter to Anti-Vaxxers After His Daughter Died From Measles

A 1986 essay written by the late Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl about his daughter dying of measles has been shared widely online, as new outbreaks of the dangerous disease have given it fresh relevance. 

The U.S. is once again witnessing outbreaks of measles, with 2018 seeing the second-highest number of cases since the disease was eliminated from the country in 2000. The false belief that measles is relatively harmless while the MMR vaccine is dangerous is partly to blame. Neither claim is backed by scientific evidence. 

Professor William Moss, a specialist in epidemiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Newsweek: "Anti-vaccine sentiment, or vaccine hesitancy, encompasses a range of personal and societal beliefs but may be summarized as beliefs that measles is not a risk or is not dangerous, that measles vaccine is potentially harmful, and mistrust of the system delivering vaccines. In fact, measles can result in death or severe disability and the measles vaccine is very safe." 

Skipping shots puts what is known as herd immunity in jeopardy, and risks the lives of vulnerable people. “Herd immunity” includes not only the vaccinated individual protected against a disease but also those who cannot safely be immunized: such as newborn babies and children with cancer. When the number of people vaccinated drops below 90 percent in a population, measles outbreaks can occur. 

Potential complications from the condition include pneumonia—the most common killer of children with measles—as well as encephalitis, or inflammation and swelling of the brain. This can cause deafness and intellectual disabilities. 

Dahl became a vocal advocate of the measles vaccine after his daughter Olivia was killed by the disease in 1962. 

roald dahl olivia The writer Roald Dahl and his wife Patricia Neal and children Olivia and Tessa (from right) and Theo (in pram) pose for a family photograph, taken in the early 1960s. Dahl, the late “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” author, wrote about his daughter dying of measles in a 1986 essay. Credit PA/Getty Images

Read Dahl's letter, below, titled “Measles: A Dangerous Illness,” was published by The Encephalitis Society Fact Sheet:

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 immunized 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 immunized are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunization 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 immunized, 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.

LET THAT SINK IN.

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

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

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 immunization! 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 immunization.

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

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 immunization 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.

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