Roald Dahl and Vaccine

Roald Dahl, the author of several of your children’s favorite books, pleads with you to have your children vaccinated.

Roald Dahl Urges Vaccinations

Regular readers know how much I enjoy Roald Dahl. Not his children’s books, which read like disguised books for grown-ups, but his essays and adult fiction and, especially, his elfin writing hut.

You might not know that Dahl lost his daughter Olivia to measles in the early 1960s. That he continued writing, even dedicating a book to her, tells you something about the man. I would have walked into the ocean until it swallowed me whole. Afterward, he became a forceful and vocal advocate for vaccinations. Following is an essay he published about his daughter’s illness and death and a follow-up plea for childhood vaccinations.

If you can read this without heartbreak, then you’re not a parent or made of different stuff than I. The palpable poignancy is even more dear to me since my biking accident and brain injury. “I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.”  My wife and children, watching me in the hospital, must have had similar feelings watching me.

A Letter From Roald Dahl

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.

My gosh.

I found these two letters on the Snopes website. Weep if you must.

The first is from Roald. He rarely spoke about Olivia but wrote this shortly after she died.

Awful drive. Lorries kept holding us up on narrow roads. Got to hospital. Ambulance went to wrong entrance. Backed out. Arrived. Young doctor in charge. Mervyn and he gave her 3mg sodium amatol. I sat in hall. Smoked. Felt frozen. A small single bar electric fire on wall. An old man in next room. Woman doctor went to phone. She was trying urgently to locate another doctor. He arrived. I went in. Olivia lying quietly. Still unconscious. She has an even chance, doctor said. They had tapped her spine. Not meningitis. It’s encephalitis. Mervyn left in my car. I stayed. Pat arrived and went in to see Olivia. Kissed her. Spoke to her. Still unconscious. I went in. I said, “Olivia Olivia.” She raised her head slightly off pillow. Sister said don’t. I went out. We drank whiskey. I told doctor to consult experts. Call anyone. He called a man in Oxford. I listened. Instructions were given. Not much could be done. I first said I would stay on. Then I said I’d go back with Pat. Went. Arrived home. Called Philip Evans. He called hospital. Called me back. “Shall I come?” “Yes please.” I said I’d tell hospital he was coming. I called. Doc thought I was Evans. He said I’m afraid she’s worse. I got in the car. Got to hospital. Walked in. Two doctors advanced on me from waiting room. How is she? I’m afraid it’s too late. I went into her room. Sheet was over her. Doctor said to nurse go out. Leave him alone. I kissed her. She was warm. I went out. “She is warm.” I said to doctors in hall, “Why is she so warm?” “Of course,” he said. I left.

Then this is from his wife, written after Dahl died in 1990. The thought of him and Olivia finally coming together after almost thirty years makes me lustful for an afterlife where we can recognize loved ones.

Roald came back from the hospital and he cried. Oh, he cried. He had seen her dead. I unfortunately never did. My sisters-in-law talked me out of it. I wish they hadn’t. I stayed up that first night just looking out the window. Your love is dead, and the sun still comes up. It’s just so sad.

I was the strong one at that point. I don’t want to brag about myself, but I’ve never seen anything like it. Roald really almost went crazy. I held everything together. I cooked all day and went on. Of course 34 years ago anything like a survivors’ support group was virtually unheard of. You had to pull yourself together. I loved Olivia, loved her, but my God, I had two more children. I had to go on.

Over the years, I found that talking about Olivia helped immeasurably. Roald — who died in 1990 — couldn’t say a word. It was locked inside him.


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Read about Measles Encephalitis here.
James And The Giant Peach
The  BFG

My favorite Roald Dahl book – not for the children!

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