Beloved children's author Roald Dahl, known for books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, lost his daughter, Olivia, to measles in 1962. He became a staunch supporter of child vaccination efforts afterwards, as seen in his writing for a 1988 pamphlet published by the Sandwell Health Authority.
Now, more than 27 years later, his writings on the subject have been thrust into the spotlight as California and the U.S. deal with an ongoing measles outbreak. Dahl's message is as important today as it was back then, but he likely would have never imagined that in the year 2015 there would still be a large and vocal group of people who are staunchly anti-vaccine, or that his message could be seen by millions thanks to the Internet. Dahl begins his letter by telling a heartbreaking story of OIivia's passing.
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.
In 1962, Olivia did not receive a measles vaccine. At the time vaccines were unreliable. Not so in 1988 when Dahl wrote this piece, and not so today. Dahl explains the danger of measles, and the ignorance of those who refuse to vaccinate their children:
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.
Anti-vaxxers today cite the "hazards" of vaccines as reason to avoid having their children immunized, but today, just as back in 1988, vaccines carry almost no risk. Dahl writes:
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.
His words still ring true today. More than 100 cases of the measles have been confirmed in an ongoing outbreak of the highly contagious virus, with many believing the large and vocal anti-vaxxer (people who refuse to vaccinate their children) movement is to blame. At least 58 of those cases began in Disneyland in Dec. 2014, where large numbers of unvaccinated people made it easy for the virus to spread. Unvaccinated people are now being encouraged to avoid Disneyland parks altogether, lest the virus continues to spread. Last year alone the U.S. saw 644 confirmed cases of the measles, more than triple the number of cases in 2013.
The power of the Internet gives us unlimited resources to educate ourselves, as well as entertain. The fact that a nearly 30-year-old letter by Dahl about measles and vaccinations has once again rose to prominence is proof. The Internet gives us all the ability to listen to the voices of the past in a way that was never possible before, all with the click of a mouse. We would do well to listen to what they have to say.
Photo Credit: ZaldyImg via Flickr (cropped)