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Why Roald Dahl begged parents to vaccinate children for measles

A vaccine came too late for his daughter, Olivia.
/ Source: TODAY

When Roald Dahl comes to mind, you generally think of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," or "James and Giant Peach," or any of his many other books or screenplays.

What you don't connect him to is measles ... and vaccinations. Dahl's 7-year-old daughter died of measles encephalitis in 1962. Years later, in 1988, the author wrote a poignant letter to the Sandwell Health Authority in Britain urging parents to get their kids vaccinated, and it has been rediscovered, according to the Washington Post. Given the current push by public health officials to get more indivduals vaccinated to prevent Covid-19, it's a message worth sharing.

Roald Dahl's daughter died of measles at age 7.
Roald Dahl's daughter died of measles at age 7. Getty Images

Here's an excerpt of what Dahl wrote. (And, yes, you might need some tissues.)

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."

Editor's Note: This article was originally published Feb. 2, 2015.

On a TODAY broadcast in April 2016, actor/director Robert De Niro questioned whether vaccines are safe and whether declining vaccination rates are fueling deadly outbreaks of diseases like measles. However, the science is quite clear that vaccines do not cause autism and decreasing vaccination rates are in fact putting more U.S. children at risk.