Heartbreaking Roald Dahl letter on daughter's measles death resurfaces online

British writer Roald Dahl (1916 - 1990), 11th December 1971. (Photo by Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the wake of a measles outbreak in Disneyland parks in the US, a heartbreaking letter by children's author Roald Dahl has resurfaced online, detailing his grief after his daughter died from measles.

In the wake of the measles outbreak in US Disneyland parks, a heartbreaking letter by Roald Dahl has resurfaced online, detailing the grief he experienced over the death of his daughter through measles.

The British author, renowned for beloved children's books like 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', 'Matilda' and 'The Witches', wrote an open letter in 1988 describing how his seven-year-old daughter died from measles.

Initially, he wasn't worried about the severity of her illness.

"As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it."

But it wasn't long before things took a turn for the worse.

Recommended reading
 

"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 twelve hours she was dead."

Dahl dedicated the 1982 children’s classic 'The BFG' to his daughter. "For Olivia: 20th April 1955 — 17th November 1962."

Measles typically begins with fever, cough, runny nose and red eyes, followed by red rash that often starts on the face and spreads downward. The sometimes deadly viral disease can spread very swiftly among unvaccinated children. 

There is no specific treatment for measles and most people recover within a few weeks. But in poor and malnourished children and people with reduced immunity, measles can cause serious complications including blindness, encephalitis, severe diarrhea, ear infection and pneumonia.

"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," Dahl wrote.

He spent the rest of the letter urging parents to vaccinate their children.

"I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered... In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk."

A recent measles outbreak in US Disneyland themeparks has renewed debate about vaccines. The so-called anti-vaccination movement in which fears about potential side effects of vaccines, fueled by now-debunked theories suggesting a link to autism, have led a small minority of parents to refuse to allow their children to be inoculated.

Here is Roald Dahl's letter in full.

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 12 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 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 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.

 

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch