In 1962, Roald Dahl, the British author of beloved children’s books including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and Fantastic Mr Fox, lost his eldest daughter Olivia to measles. One year later, the first vaccine against the disease was introduced, in the hopes of preventing deaths like Olivia’s.
Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly clear having an available vaccine to parents isn’t necessarily enough to stop the disease – we also need to convince people to use it.
Take, for example, the current measles outbreak in the United States, centred in the regions surrounding California, which has been driven largely by unvaccinated children.
In 2015, there were more than 100 confirmed cases of the disease in 14 states in the US, and more than 60 percent of these are believed to have originated at Disneyland.
As you can see in the chart below, as more and more parents decide to delay or avoid vaccinating their children altogether, it’s causing a spike in the cases of the preventable disease.
One of the big issues is that people see perceived vaccination risks (most of which have been disproved vehemently by science) as worse than the disease the vaccination prevents. But this is definitely not the case. As Dahl saw first-hand, measles is a deadly disease. And just like the parents of the 145,700 people who died of measles around the world last year – the majority of which were children under five – he was painfully aware of the need for protection against it.
In an effort to remind other parents of just what is at stake, 26 years after Olivia’s death, Dahl penned this powerful letter, published in a pamphlet the Sandwell Health Authority.
And it’s just as important today, if not more so, as it was back then. You can read the full letter below, originally shared over at io9.
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.
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 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.