27 Years Later, Roald Dahl's Heartbreaking Letter on Vaccines Matters More Than Ever

27 Years Later, Roald Dahl's Heartbreaking Letter on Vaccines Matters More Than Ever
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

The U.S. is in the midst of a modest measles epidemic. Nearly 107 people in eight states have been diagnosed with the disease, all linked to an outbreak at Disneyland in California. As Mic's Sophie Kleeman writes, "Now Arizona health officials say that a family exposed to it on vacation could infect up to 1,000 residents."

Measles was eradicated in the U.S. in 2000, and most doctors and epidemiologists place the blame for the outbreak squarely on the anti-vaccination movement. Pediatric infectious disease specialist James Cherry told the New York Times that the outbreak was "100% connected" to the anti-vaccine movement. "It wouldn't have happened otherwise — it wouldn't have gone anywhere," he said. The newspaper reports that the new measles outbreak received defensive reactions from anti-vaxxers (those who refuse to vaccinate their children because of personal beliefs or fearing autism, thanks to a debunked myth).

If anti-vaxxers refuse to believe science, they should consider reading a personal account from Roald Dahl, the late Norwegian writer and beloved author of children's classics like Matilda, The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In 1962, Dahl lost his eldest daughter, Olivia, to measles. In 1988, Dahl wrote a letter to the United Kingdom's Sandwell Health Authority, which subsequently published it in a pamphlet:

Measles: A Dangerous Illness

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was 7 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 colored 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 12 hours, she was dead.

Dahl continues:

The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis, and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was 24 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 100,000 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 nonexistent. 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 schoolchildren 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.

Dahl was "destroyed" by Olivia's death, according to his first wife. He never spoke about her, but on the 20th anniversary of her death he dedicated his favorite children's book, The BFG, to her memory.

But don't vaccines cause autism? That's the prevailing myth keeping adults from vaccinating their children. Consider this anecdote from the New York Times this weekend:

Missy Foster, 43, said she had not vaccinated her daughter, Tully, who is now 18 months old, against measles because of concern that the M.M.R. vaccine — which stands for measles, mumps and rubella, or German measles — might be associated with autism.

"It's the worst shot," she said, with tears in her eyes. "Do you want to wake up one morning and the light is gone from her eyes with autism or something?"

NO, GODDAMMIT, NO. I'm just going to blockquote myself from the last time I debunked this ridiculous lie:

No. Time and again, research has demonstrated that the 1998 "groundbreaking" study that allegedly linked vaccines to autism was just bad science with no basis in reality. 

The most forceful rebuttal to this ridiculous myth came in a meta-analysis of 1.3 million subjects in the medical journal Vaccines in June 2014A team of researchers from the University of Sydney analyzed a collection of the "available evidence from case-control and cohort studies" that "assessed the relationship between vaccine administration and the subsequent development of autism or autism spectrum disorders" according to the paper's abstract. The results? There is no statistically significant link between vaccines and autism. Period. Full stop

Vaccinating your kids isn't a "personal belief," it's your social responsibility. "If other people are vaccinated, they won't catch the disease — and won't spread it to young children who cannot get protection," Vox reports. This phenomenon — the epidemiological logic underpinning the social necessity of vaccines — is what the scientific community calls "community immunity" or "herd immunity." "If every American of age were vaccinated, measles wouldn't spread ... Vaccinated people essentially act as barriers to measles outbreaks, since the disease can't pass through them and infect other people," German Lopez reports at Vox.

If you can't bring yourself to listen to empirical research, listen to Roald Dahl and vaccinate your goddamn kids already.

h/t Daily Kos

Editor's Note: Feb. 13, 2015

A previous version of this article failed to attribute language from an earlier Mic story about vaccinations. The story has been updated to fully link and attribute that language.

Editor's Note: Feb. 25, 2015

An earlier version of this article failed to cite passages from Vox and a previous Mic article in accordance with Mic editorial standards. The article has been updated to properly attribute the language to Vox and Mic.