Matilda, James, & Charlie would have been vaccinated

220px-Roald_DahlRecently, a letter written in 1988 by beloved British children’s lit author Roald Dahl resurfaced.  The letter was written on behalf of his deceased daughter Olivia, who caught measles and died in 1962 at the all-too young age of 7. Prior to the development of the measles vaccine, this was a horrifyingly common occurrence.  In his letter, Dahl recounts the last day of Olivia’s life and pleads parents to vaccinate their children.

 “In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk.”
-Roald Dahl’s 1988 letter

child with measles
child with measles

Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that starts somewhat innocuously as a flu-like disease before exploding into an itchy rash that can spread all over the body. Measles is particularly dangerous when the virus infects the lungs and progresses to pneumonia or infects the brain and causes inflammation leading to seizures and brain damage.  This brain infection is what ended poor Olivia Dahl’s life all those years ago.  And although Roald Dahl recognized that the vaccine was not available in time to save his eldest daughter, he was conscious of the well-being of his other children and all the kids all over the world that are captivated by his fantasy worlds in books.

“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.
-Roald Dahl’s 1988 letter

electron micrograph of measles virus
electron micrograph of measles virus

Around the time that Olivia Dahl was born in the 1950’s, Drs. Thomas Peebles and John Enders were attempting to “catch” the measles virus in a laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital. Enders had just won the Nobel Prize for his work on polio virus and had turned his attention to another child killer–measles.  His team worked tirelessly to grow measles virus in human kidneys and placentas in an attempt to weaken it for use as a vaccine.  A tube of virus grown by the Ender’s lab was given to the “father of modern vaccines”, Dr. Maurice Hilleman, working at Merck in New Jersey.  Hilleman spent the next few years further weakening the virus until it did not cause a measles-like disease and he also removed a potentially dangerous contaminant from it.  It is Hilleman’s measles strain that is still given to children today starting at 12 months old in a 3-part vaccine known as MMR (standing for measles, mumps, rubella–the combo also developed by Hilleman). Widespread vaccination efforts in the 1980’s practically eradicated measles from the U.S.–until today, more about that later.

“In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles like smallpox,
has been virtually wiped out.”
-Roald Dahl’s 1988 letter

220px-TheBFGAs an adolescent, I enjoyed many of Dahl’s novels including Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Dahl’s humor was odd and dark for children’s lit.  Perhaps his previous experiences as a World War II fighter pilot, flying the Gloster Gladiator biplane aircraft, influenced his later, lighter employment as a novelist.  Dahl dedicated one of my favorite books, The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), to his daughter Olivia.  In this story, a little girl and the BFG save the world from man-eating giants.  The metaphor of giants as infectious disease agents is obvious, but the BFG as the “nicer” version that saves the people has just occurred to me.  Further, rereading this novel as an adult, I now laugh at the crazy giant vocabulary (cannybull, crocadowndillies, swizzfiggling, & human beans to list a few of the best words) and wonder whether this was a stab at science terminology, a language riddled with incoherency and jargon.  Then again, maybe I’m reading too much into it.

“That will stop the poisnowse juices from the venomsome viper
going up your leg and into your heart!”

-Roald Dahl in The BFG

The MMR vaccine has gotten a bad rep over the past 15 years due to a now retracted study that I don’t feel warrants the time nor space on this blog.  Suffice it to say that nothing is 100% safe.  Water, in enough volume, is dangerous, and peanut-containing products would be ripped from the shelves if foods needed to be confirmed to be as safe as vaccines.  And yet, many thousands of children have been denied their vaccines by their loving parents.  Measles outbreaks have popped up all over the world–including here in the U.S. (in just the past few months a number of distinct outbreaks have been tracked back to Disneyland).  I have no doubt that anyone reading this blog cherishes their children in a way that I (not having any kids myself) cannot even possibly imagine.  You would do absolutely anything to protect them.  The irony is that that is exactly what vaccines do.

“I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a [Wonka] chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation.”
-Roald Dahl’s 1988 letter


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