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Roald Dahl’s Most Tragic Story

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When you think of Roald Dahl, you think of wonderful stories such as The Witches, The Twits and The B.F.G (this writer’s personal favourite). Brilliant flights of fancy that punctuated many a childhood, even today. What you don’t tend to think of is the very sad story of his daughter Olivia who died from the measles aged seven.

These days we don’t give the measles too much thought. Thanks to the availability of vaccinations for children, it’s not something we’re used to dealing with, though of course there will always be newer issues that take its place. Without such vaccinations, however, exposure to the measles at a very young age can be more than a nuisance, it can be fatal.

Due to the recent outbreak of measles in America, believed to be spread by those who were unvaccinated upon coming in contact with a measles sufferer at Disneyland, Dahl’s words from 1988, published seven years before his death, have been recirculated. In it, the writer urges that parents give the measles vaccination the consideration it deserves. His words are particularly poignant.

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Via the Washington Post, here is part of his piece.

“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.”

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