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Roald Dahl's Letter Puts Measles Vaccine Controversy in Perspective

The Short of It

A measles outbreak that started at Disneyland in California in December and has spread to 14 states, sickening 100 people, has done little to quash the controversy surrounding the MMR vaccine. Many parents still claim it's their right to refuse to immunize their children. Now, a letter penned by children's book author Roald Dahl before his death has emerged, putting things squarely into perspective.

The Lowdown

Dahl lost his daughter Olivia to the measles in 1962. She was just 7 years old. Heartbreakingly, the vaccine against this potentially deadly illness was introduced the following year.

In 1988, two years before the prolific writer of fantastical tales like "James and Giant Peach" died, he wrote a public letter urging parents to vaccinate their kids.

First, Dahl recounted Olivia's illness, saying he wasn't particularly alarmed, since many children came down with the illness in the 1960s.

"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," Dahl wrote.

When he asked Olivia how she was feeling, she responded, "I feel all sleepy." Dahl says that within an hour, his beloved daughter was unconscious, and just 12 hours later, she had died.

Her illness "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...as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her," the letter reads.

The letter continues, "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...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."

The Upshot

Most of the people who were sickened from the Disneyland outbreak were not vaccinated against the virus, from which 1 to 3 out of every 1,000 who contract it will die. Measles is highly contagious; 9 out of 10 people who are exposed will become infected. The MMR vaccine offers up to 99 percent protection.

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