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Roald Dahl’s Heartbreaking Letter About Vaccination

Roald Dahl wrote James and The Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Matilda. He’s one of the greatest children’s authors the world has ever known.

But the following letter he wrote in 1988 is perhaps the most poignant copy he’s ever written. In it, he describes how his daughter died from the measles many years before (h/t to Vox):

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 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.

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…

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.

I don’t know where you stand on vaccinations. It’s a weird world we live in where you even have to take a “stand” on something that saves lives.

But I hope you take this topic seriously. I get the feeling that it’s going to be a major issue in America in the 2016 election. I simply won’t support any candidate who dismisses scientific proof and is willing to put my kids’ health, and even lives, at risk.

I’ve always said I’m not a one-issue voter. But maybe I can be if I’m passionate enough about the issue. This is a big one for me.

A potentially deadly disease that had been completely eradicated returns because parents are more willing to take medical advice from Jenny McCarthy, celebrity faux doctors like Dr. Oz, and pseudoscience bloggers than their own pediatricians? Can I get a big WTF on that one?

For those of you who live outside the U.S., I’m curious: Do you have a vocal anti-vaccination minority, or is this a uniquely American thing? Tell me in the comments.

Pardon me for stepping slightly outside this blog’s usual boundaries. But when a literature giant like Roald Dahl writes a moving letter on a subject you care deeply about, you (or I) can’t help but share.

As Hillary Clinton recently tweeted, “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids.”

Vaccinations save lives.

Thank you to the late Roald Dahl for sharing his heartbreaking story.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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56 Comments Post a comment
  1. Human Interest #

    Reblogged this on Human Interest.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  2. Human Interest #

    Reblogged this on Human Interest.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  3. Brandon #

    Well said. I can’t believe it’s even a topic of discussion in the political sphere. Vaccines save lives, end of story.

    Liked by 3 people

    February 11, 2015
  4. One honest, poignant statement from a parent who lost a child (not to mention all the science behind vaccination) should be more convincing than all the anti-science/publicity hound crap that’s been spouted. But we know that won’t stop people who refuse to believe what’s in front of them or who want to figure out a way to blame people they hate. Heavy sigh …

    Like

    February 11, 2015
    • It almost feels like a growing number of people are trying to argue that 2+2=5. So frustrating.

      Like

      February 11, 2015
      • I’m torn a lot of the time between pity, shock and the need to stifle an ungodly amount of laughter at many of the “truths” a lot of these people spout …

        Like

        February 11, 2015
  5. I hear so much about these vaccination discussions, and it’s pretty troubling. Here in India, we vaccinate our children as a matter of course. In some schools, during our school admissions, we actually show our vaccination record and if it’s not up to date, the child may not even be admitted. We are prone to so many tropical illnesses that we just can’t do without vaccines.

    Liked by 2 people

    February 11, 2015
    • There’s going to be political pressure in the coming years to force vaccinations unless there’s an extreme reason. Most parents can just decline for philosophical/religious reasons these days. I hope the standards become much stricter, or in 10 years we might have segregated schools based on vaccinations.

      Liked by 1 person

      February 11, 2015
  6. I hope this is shared far and wide. Thanks for uncovering Dahl’s essay and writing this post.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  7. Here’s another heartbreaking story from a parent: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10860122

    Thankfully, in this case the child has survived.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  8. Reblogged this on Jennifer Austin – Author and commented:
    Reblogging because this post puts everything in such perspective. Not vaccinating our children is inconceivable to me and unless your child has a serious medical condition that prevents it, you should protect them.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  9. J.R.Barker #

    In the UK children get days where the whole school is vaccinated against Measles, mumps and rubella, we also get tested to see if we’re susceptible to tuberculosis, if we are we get a BCG. I’ve never heard anyone grumble about it, it just happens. Recently girls have been able to get vaccinated against cervical cancer, also done in school.
    We’re also told by the doctor to get vaccinated against things such as tetanus and during our life our doctors make sure we’re up to date on our vaccines.
    It never even occurred to me that this was an oddity in countries that could afford it, but I am glad I was born in a country where such things are par for the course. Especially when there are others in many countries who travel miles on the off chance that these drugs might be available.
    It boggles the mind that so many people are anti vaccine because one person has dragged up false proofs and people haven’t bothered to check their validity.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 11, 2015
    • Yep, we’re spoiled Americans. It truly is a #firstworldproblem when we’re willing to refuse vaccines that save lives because of pseudoscience. It’s a testament to how well vaccines work that we’re even having these discussion. No one knows the damage that measles, the flu and polio can really do.

      Like

      February 11, 2015
      • J.R.Barker #

        At least you’re having the discussion, if it were to be ignored that would be the bigger worry. Although it’s a shame the gov is having to step in because of the human condition.

        Like

        February 13, 2015
    • I’m also from the UK and while everything you say above is true and fantastic there was a huge backlash against the MMR – measles mumps and rubella and I think measles has come back to the UK as a result. It was ONE doctor in Wales I think who said it caused autism and so many people choose to believe that and don’t vaccinate their child. And lots of parents refused the HPV vaccination as apparently it meant their little darling would start having sex – totally ridiculous!! I think the U.S. is going through something we went through a few years ago with the backlash – although luckily in the UK it never got up to political level.

      Liked by 1 person

      February 12, 2015
      • J.R.Barker #

        I don’t suppose the problem is unique to America, but I wasn’t aware of it being a problem when I were a lass. Then again if a thing works why question it?

        Like

        February 13, 2015
  10. Thanks for posting this, what a heart breaking and poignant letter.

    Roald Dahl had some wicked tragedies in his life didn’t he, very unfair.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  11. Suzi Godwin #

    There is an interactive map at npr.org which shows how much measles and whooping cough(pertussis) have increased since 2008. Europe is having problems, too. Rubella is making a comeback in Eastern Europe, which is especially bad news as it causes horrible birth defects. Is it going to take the return of polio to get people to smarten up?

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  12. In Germany there is a package of prescribed examinations the pediatrist has to do including vaccination against all common child diseases (including measles and pox) and some other stuff. It starts with the newborn child and stops at the age of 14 or 15. But we also have vaccination certificates about all vaccinations made and when they should be refreshed (…should soon look at mine again…).
    Appears to be a cliche, but it seems the American Healthcare System really could and should be improved (personal opinion).

    Like

    February 11, 2015
    • We have the same thing, and it’s highly recommended. However, parents can easily opt out if they choose to do so. That’s what’s happened over here over the last decade, and it’s why we’ve seen outbreaks at DisneyLand that have the potential to keep spiraling out of control. I’m starting to believe parents shouldn’t have the option to refuse. You can get in serious trouble for not putting your kid in a car seat, so why can’t we have the same standard for vaccinations?

      Like

      February 11, 2015
    • Tobi #

      There are no obligatory vaccinations against anything in Germany.
      There are recommmendations as to what to vaccinate against and I sense that today, most parents have their children vaccinated. For instance, while I (26) and none of my sisters were vaccinated my little niece is.
      Is it possible that the reason so many people in the US seem to object to vaccinations is a rather sceptical (even opposing?) view on the government/authorities? Doesn’t make that stance reasonable whatsoever of course.

      Like

      February 11, 2015
      • Sorry, my fault. Didn’t know it was only a recommendation. Never thought about it when I was younger and don’t have children of my own yet (being 21) and those friends of mine who already have them are too close to the healthcare system to argue about them.

        Like

        February 11, 2015
      • I think that’s more the reason than anything else. Conspiracy nutjob theories are given way too much weight over here.

        Like

        February 12, 2015
  13. Reblogged this on Kevin Craig and commented:
    A heartbreaking letter from Roald Dahl on measles…worth the timely reblog, considering the measles outbreak in Toronto at the moment…

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  14. Alison #

    Things like this make me realise how lucky we are to have the developments in medicine that allow us to have vaccinations against disease. I know I had the measles vaccination in the early 80’s and I know if I ever become a parent it would be a no brainer for me that I would 100% get them all the vaccinations that are offered.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 11, 2015
  15. I had the measles in the ’60’s, pre-vaccine, and spent several weeks apart from my younger four siblings. I was lucky and only had minor complications. There was never any doubt … my three children all got their vaccinations!

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  16. Stephen McDaniel #

    Well done on finding this. A recent body of studies have investigated basically how to change people’s minds when they believe something strongly, however wrongly. Persuasion usually does not work. Nor does education or scientific opinion. What does work is for doctors to simply tell parents it’s time for the child’s vaccinations. Don’t ask how they feel about vaccinating, don’t engage in discussions, just tell them it needs to be done. People take their child to a pediatrician because they trust the doctor to give the child the best care. The study made the point that if you go to the emergency room with a gunshot wound, they don’t ask you how you feel about removing bullets.

    Liked by 2 people

    February 11, 2015
  17. It just bothers me so much that people want to make this about autism. Let’s break it down. (1) The original study that found a link between vaccines and autism has been discredited, as has the scientist to falsified it. (2) But let’s put that aside for a second and pretend that there is a significant link between early childhood vaccines and autism, and let’s say that concerns a parent enough for them to refuse vaccines for their kids.

    (2a) In that case, wouldn’t it make sense for the parent to wait until their kids were a little older to vaccinate, or spread out the vaccinations for lower doses? And yet most anti-vaxxors refuse vaccines, period, because “toxins” or something. (And rescheduling vaccines probably isn’t an ideal solution, but I’m just following the logic here).

    (2b) More importantly, what the parent is saying in this situation is that they are more worried about their kid “catching” autism than risking death. Think about that for a second: The highly questionable possibility of a developmental disorder is WORSE than the very real potential for death for both your kid and other kids who can’t get vaccines for medical reasons. What you’re saying is you’d rather your kid die or kill another kid than get autism. And that’s F’d up.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
    • Yes! And continuing that train of thought…they’re saying autism is worse than death!

      Like

      February 11, 2015
  18. I’m in South Africa- vaccines have been a part of my life since the day I was born (sometime in 1971), we had the usual back then- MMR and that was AFTER I contracted measles. I can still remember being a four year old lying in a dark room in the middle of an African summer, where temps often get close to 40*C. In 1999 when my son was 15 months old he and I both spent Christmas with chickenpox. I felt three inches from death. Two years later a chickenpox vaccine appeared.
    Here in SA, kids have to have their vaccines- when a child is born, the parents are given a vaccination card which is signed and stamped at every injection.
    When children go to school, kindergarten or ‘proper’ school, you have to produce that card.
    Children are also vaccinated at school with polio and MMR vaccines through their school years.
    We do have a very small teeny tiny minority against vaccinations, but in a country just THIS side of being 3rd world, is it a good idea to take the risk??? Our healthcare system is only good if you can afford private and even then it’s not always great. For me personally, I think it’s one of those necessary evils in life.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  19. Reblogged this on Faceplant!.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  20. Thank you for sharing this. My medical sociology professor brought up an interesting perspective. She said that, here in America, many of us have not seen or experienced someone dying from a disease like measles, so a lot of the generation having kids right now don’t realize how serious it is. On the other hand, in a country like Africa, women will literally walk miles with their children just to get a measles vaccine, because they’ve seen children in their communities die from the disease. They don’t take it for granted, and the destruction of the disease is still very real to them. I think it gets really easy to lose perspective when you’re not immediately in danger of something.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 11, 2015
  21. I had all my vaccinations, including the HPV vaccination (I was 13 and they decided that every girl in the UK should be vaccinated). Certain school trips/events required proof of vaccinations as well.
    The vaccination issues only seem to be happening in America as far as I’m aware; I haven’t heard anything about it here. It absolutely boggles my mind that people can refuse to get a potentially lifesaving vaccine based on the (fraudulent) claims of one doctor…but that’s the power of the press, unfortunately. It just takes one major newspaper to report something and not check their facts, and people believe it.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  22. What a great letter from Roald Dahl! And you make excellent points. I’m still surprised how much of a hot button issue this has become. It really doesn’t make sense with all the scientific facts and evidence we have.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  23. Elizabeth #

    It’s a controversial issue indeed, but I would like to point out that what many anti-vaxxers are opposed to is not the vaccination itself, but the numerous unnecessary additives that are put into vaccines. Before this is dismissed as mere pseudoscience or quackery, there are a number of scientific journal articles which back up the above statement. I’ve listed a couple of examples below (I haven’t got time to cite more right now, but there are plenty of them):

    A paper from the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry suggesting a correlation between aluminium (a common additive in vaccines) and autism, at http://omsj.org/reports/tomljenovic%202011.pdf.

    The above study cites the FDA:

    “According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (US
    FDA), safety assessments for vaccines have often not included appropriate
    toxicity studies
    because vaccines have not been viewed as inherently
    toxic [15].”

    In their conclusion, they state that aluminium is a “neurotoxin and a strong immune adjuvant (Table 1), hence Al has all the necessary biochemical properties to induce neurological and immune disorders”.

    A study published in PubMed reporting possible associations between thimerosal exposure in infants and neurodevelopmental disorders, at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18482737.

    Yes, vaccines prevent deaths. Yes, the science behind the principle of vaccination is clear. But there is also the fact that vaccines are not 100% safe: as the studies above show, it’s not the vaccine itself but the additives used to preserve it that can cause harm. So maybe the solution is not to have this inflammatory war between people who want to preserve freedom of choice and people who want to enforce mandatory vaccination schedules, but to stop putting harmful preservatives, such as aluminium, in vaccines and find other preservatives instead.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
    • Stephen McDaniel #

      Life ain’t 100% safe. Neither is anything else. How many people have died from the additives?

      Like

      February 11, 2015
      • Elizabeth #

        How many people have died from the additives? Well, the U.S. is a country that recommends the highest level of vaccination doses in the world for children under 1 year, and yet the infant mortality rate (IMR) is worse than 33 other nations in the developed world. Again, here’s a scientific paper (from the Human and Experimental Toxicology journal) as a reference:

        “Infant mortality rates regressed against number of vaccine doses routinely given: Is there a biochemical or synergistic toxicity?” (Miller, N. Z. and Goldman, G. S., 2011).

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3170075

        Miller and Goldman ran statistical tests and among their findings were:

        “Among the 34 nations analyzed, those that require the most vaccines tend to have the worst IMRs”

        nations that require more vaccine doses tend to have higher infant mortality rates. […] A closer inspection of correlations between vaccine doses, biochemical or synergistic toxicity, and IMRs, is essential”.

        Like

        February 12, 2015
        • Stephen McDaniel #

          That’s the problem with statistics, as well as with junk science. You could also get a positive correlation between the IMR and the number of cars per family. The final sentence is the key: ‘a closer inspection of correlations is required’. I don’t read anything there that says that vaccine preservatives cause childhood deaths. A real scientific study involves comparing two or more groups in a double blind experiment, using large numbers of participants over a significant time frame, controlling for all the other variables, etc. etc. then having the results peer reviewed and the outcomes duplicated in additional research. Statistics are not science. They may point to areas that need research, but by themselves they ‘prove’ nothing.

          Like

          February 12, 2015
          • Elizabeth #

            You do realize that the use of vaccinations is based on statistics?

            In fact, two lawsuits have recently been filed against Merck, one of the biggest vaccination manufacturers, for falsifying their statistics on the efficacy of the mumps vaccine.

            And I wouldn’t call the paper ‘junk science’, considering it is from a peer-reviewed, international journal.

            I didn’t say that statistics prove anything. Besides, the notion of definitively ‘proving’ something doesn’t really exist in science. But they can provide significant indications. And statistical analysis is a big part of science: any scientific study necessarily involves conducting statistical tests (t-tests, Pearson, chi-square, ANOVA etc).

            Furthermore, your claim that “you could also get a positive correlation between the IMR and the number of cars per family” is statistically unlikely, since the whole point of running statistical tests is to find out the p value and whether the relationship is significant, i.e., the probability that the outcome is chance or a fluke.

            You’ll find variations of the final sentence in virtually any scientific journal article: that’s just the way researchers write, because as I said above, you can postulate hypotheses but they can’t ever be 100% proven.

            Miller and Goldman’s p value was < 0.0001. In other words, extremely significant (less than 1 in 1000 chance of the result being a fluke), which strongly suggests that there is a relationship between a high number of vaccines pre-12 months and IMR.

            However, I think this argument is futile, as most arguments on the internet are!

            Like

            February 12, 2015
        • If you choose other research from government and university sources you will note that infant mortality rates in the US can also be attributed to higher rates of premature births and later in the first year, economic factors. That is babies born to poor mothers in disadvantaged areas. Yes, US has areas with third world conditions. As Steven says, stats can prove anything you want them too. The one I like is people who consume large quantities of chocolate are more likely to win Nobel prizes.
          What statistics tell us with vaccinating is that for all the Millions of people who get vaccinated, a few will have serious reactions. All drugs have that risk. I could have opted not to take antidepressants because some cause suicidal ideation, and the one time I went off, I ended up in hospital. Now it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

          Like

          February 18, 2015
  24. Australia and New Zealand are also experiencing measles outbreaks, though the anti-vac crowd is less vocal than it is in the US. There is also a problem in Pakistan where polio and whooping cough are making a comeback after it was revealed (and the CIA confirmed) that the CIA was using vaccination programs to spy on people in remote areas.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  25. CC #

    This is a great and powerful article. I agree with Ronald Dahl’s viewpoint on the (is it controversial yet?) subject of vaccinations.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
    • CC #

      Please ignore the ‘is it controversial yet?’ remark…my bad.

      Like

      February 14, 2015
  26. For those of us who lived in the fifties, we know the value of vaccination. It was a miracle against polio. Until those anti-vaxxies can come up with a better cure for these diseases, I think they should keep their mouths shut. And vitamin c is not the cure. That works against scurvy.

    Liked by 2 people

    February 11, 2015
  27. Amen, Brother! I may be a failure as a husband, and fall down on the job as a Dad, but ALL my kids are immunized! I believe that those who don’t immunize truly have their children’s best interests at heart, as we all do, but it’s still hard to understand what they think they are protecting their children from by skipping the shots.

    Like

    February 11, 2015
  28. Hi, it is On, a long time reader of this blog (since Michael Hyatt had mentioned it in his blog) who rarely leaves comment. I am from Hong Kong, a city in China. Recently, a book was published by an anti-vaccine group to promote what its members believe. The book is highly popular among parents and parents-to-be, an issue that concerns me. Seemingly, a trend of not trusting the modern medicine is rising in the city.

    Like

    February 12, 2015
    • Thanks for commenting Siu-On. I hate to hear that. Hopefully science and fact will outweight the anti-vax push there.

      Like

      February 12, 2015
  29. Reblogged this on Musings of an Art Therapist/Artist and commented:
    This is important. I know it’s controversial. The main thing I felt was shocked and heartbroken that the man who wrote so many incredible beautiful stories for children lost his little girl when she was 7. Such a horrible tragedy. He is one of my favorite authors. I cannot imagine how much the rest of his life was full of suffering as I know you cannot get over such a loss. He is right and I wish his daughter had been able to be vaccinated….

    Like

    February 12, 2015
  30. Definitely a growing and increasingly vocal anti-vaxx minority here in Canada. My brother nearly died of meningitis in the 80s which colours my view, but even if that were not the case, the movement would baffle me. Though I have to say, the mocking and condescending tone (which neither you nor Dahl take here, and I thank you,) is also extremely grating and, I think, unnecessary. They just make people feel better about themselves because they’re smarter than anti-vaxxers. That’s not true, I know as little about vaccination as anyone else who doesn’t have medical training.

    Like

    February 12, 2015
  31. In Belgium certain vaccinations are obliged by law. Not sure which ones. A first set is already administered to baby’s in maternity before they even go home. For others, parents of young children are obliged to take their kids to a doctor or nurse to get them vaccinations, at the risk of being penally sanctioned.
    When kids are in grammar school, vaccinations are given at the occasion of school medical check-ups. Parents may be present but can’t object, I think.
    In general, to my knowledge, people make no objection to it anyway. It’s accepted practice. It’s even quiet common for adults to get vaccinated against the flew every year in fall. Which may be slightly overkill.

    Like

    February 13, 2015
  32. swright9 #

    Great post. Didn’t know that about Dahl losing a daughter to measles. How tragic. You’re preaching to the choir here. I agree all the way about getting vaccinations!

    Like

    February 15, 2015
  33. I cannot believe that people think one flawed research study which was trashed by the scientific community is a good reason to reject vaccinating their children, and themselves. I was born in 1951, just before the last major polio epidemic in Manitoba. While I don’t remember the panic, closure of public spaces and crises in our neighbourhood, I do remember the kids who didn’t grow up, those that ended up in iron lungs and those in wheelchairs. Most of whom experienced shortened lives. What do we need, another pandemic? Measles, mumps, diphtheria can be very serious illnesses.
    My heart goes out to you and I hope your story wakes up a few people.
    C

    Like

    February 18, 2015
  34. Reblogged this on 61chrissterry and commented:
    This is such an important subject, vaccines do work, but they are never 100%, but then what is.

    Like

    February 19, 2015
  35. يامن يحبني رد علي

    Like

    March 12, 2015

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