Roald Dahl, Whose Daughter Died of Measles: “It is really almost a crime to let your children go unimmunized.”

Roald Dahl, Whose Daughter Died of Measles: “It is really almost a crime to let your children go unimmunized.” February 2, 2015

I’ll just make it clear from the outset where I stand: I believe that every Christian, especially the social justice minded, has a duty to vaccinate themselves and their children.

For most of today I have been sitting on the couch with my nearly 7 year old son, who has been vomiting and taking tiny sips of water at regular intervals since 6:15 this morning. I am not particularly worried. He is already improving. I am sure it is some nasty little bug or another that will soon run its course. If he starts to show signs of dehydration, I could have him at any number of the world’s finest hospitals within twenty minutes.
Almost exactly a year ago, he had been vomiting profusely for nearly a week — only I was very, very worried. We were living then in Malawi, Africa, and the vomiting was no simple “bug” but rather the effect of gastric malaria, which he had contracted in spite of all our expensive prophylactic measures: the high quality mosquito tent, the permethrin treated clothing, the most costly and effective kind of malaria-preventive pills.

Every now and then, folks — usually strangers on the Internet — would try to tell me that the protective measures were maybe more harmful than helpful; that malaria was as natural as anything else and that he would be stronger for fighting it.That’s an easy argument to make when it is not your child lies listless and pale in between bouts of vomiting.

Sometimes I think that in the USA and other developed countries, we actually forget that we are mortal. 

In our hyper-awareness of the ways in which our astonishing successes have led to unintentionally dangerous consequences, we have often become enamored of — nostalgic for — “simpler,” seemingly less complicated times.

I have seen and lived in this “simpler” world that is less “encumbered” by technology. I have sat with people whose babies have died preventable deaths. I have held babies — newborns and preemies — who were likely already irreversibly damaged by entirely preventable diseases, simply because their mothers had no access to the kind of care of which some Americans — mostly wealthy and educated Americans — now refuse.

Anti-vaccination is one kind of nostalgia, I think. “Measles is not that bad.” So say people who have never seen a case of measles, and may have heard stories of their parents or grandparents enduring measles as an ordinary rite of childhood. When you have never seen measles — once virtually eradicated in this country — it is easy enough to think that it’s “not that bad.”

When you have never seen measles — which can cause death — it is easy to fear the vaccine.I have loved Roald Dahl’s writing since I could read on my own, and have, in particular, always enjoyed his obvious affection for children, which I’ve never read as having even a whiff of condescension about it. So it caught my attention when I saw his pro-vaccine letter circulating on the web today. His own daughter, Olivia, to whom he dedicated James and the Giant Peach and The BFG, died of a complication of measles:

“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.


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.”

My own almost-7 year old boy is already feeling better. I know I cannot protect him from everything. But I know that I, like most other human beings, do not always know what I ought to fear, to protect from. I am grateful for the protective measures available to us in wealthy countries. I am proud of his up-to-date, comprehensive vaccination record. I am hopeful that by the time I’m a grandma, the anti-vaccination movement will be regarded as the unscientific, anti-historical, and dangerous piece of nonsense that it is.

To repeat: I believe that every Christian, especially the social justice minded, has a duty to vaccinate themselves and their children.


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