Roald Dahl’s Gut-Wrenching Letter Slamming Anti-Vaxxers Is Depressingly Relevant Today

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It may feel as though anti-vaxxers are only just emerging, but they’ve actually been around for as long as vaccines have.

(Unfortunately, thanks to social media, their numbers are on the rise despite a growing body of research proving that vaccines definitively do not cause autism; So much so that  WHO named “vaccine hesitancy,”, described as “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines,” one of the global threats for 2019.)

One of the nation’s largest measles outbreaks ever reported is ongoing in Washington state, with more than 800 students ordered to stay home for the next three weeks, The Seattle Times reported Wednesday.

As such, it seemsas good a time as any to revisit the words of Roald Dahl—author or children’s books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach—whose eldest daughter, Olivia, died from measles in 1962. There was no vaccine available at the time.

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In 1988, twenty-six years after 7-year-old Olivia’s tragic death, Dahl penned a gut-wrenching plea to parents urging them to vaccinate theirchildren against the disease.

In a pamphlet published by the Sandwell Health Authority, “Measles: A Dangerous Illness,” saw Dahl hammering home the seriousness of measles, the necessity of vaccination, and the foolishness of those who refuse to do so  “out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear.”

Sadly, it is as relevant today as it was over 30 years ago.

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. Inmy 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 ofyour 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.

The author’s letter remains regrettably appropriate over three decades later. Though the United States declared measles “eliminated” in 2000, the disease has seen a resurgence in recent years. According to The Economist, there were 372 cases of measles in 2018, ” the second highest number since 1996,” while more than 200 cases were reported in just January and February of 2019.

And containing outbreaks is becoming increasingly difficult. “As long as parents’ choice is put before public health,” the publication notes, “stopping measles from spreading in America will be a laborious, costly task,” adding that Washington has already spent over $1m attempting to stop the outbreak since the new year.

Roald Dahl died in 1990.

h/t USA Today/The Economist