Olivia Dahl and Measles

Over dinner two weeks ago, I talked with two lively children about our favorite Roald Dahl books.  For me it was The BFG, while they favored James and the Giant Peach.  Others prefer Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”  They’re all great.

Afterward, I remembered that I had read long ago that one of Dahl’s children had died of complications from the measles.  What follows is what Dahl wrote about his daughter in 1986, from roalddahl.com


Olivia Dahl, 1955-1962
“MEASLES: A dangerous illness.
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 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
The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles
encephalitis and there was nothing 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.
It is not generally accepted that measles can be a
dangerous illness.  Believe me, it is.  In my opinion parents
who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting
the lives of those children at risk.  In America, where measles
is now compulsory, measles like smallpox, has
been virtually wiped out.
Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, either out
of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to
be immunised, we still have a hundred thousand cases of
measles every year.  Out of those, more than 10,000 will
suffer side effects of one kind or another.  At least 10,000
will develop ear or chest infections.  About 20 will die.
Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from
So what about the risks that your children will run from
being immunised?
They are almost non-existent.  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 immunisation!  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 vaccination.
So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost
a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised.
The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never
too late.  All school-children who have not yet had a
measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange
for them to have one as soon as possible.
Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first
was James and the Giant Peach.  That was when she was
still alive.  The second was The BFG, dedicated to her
memory after she had died from measles.  You will see her
name at the beginning of each of these books.  And I know
how happy she would be if only she could know that her
death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death
among other children.”


The first measles vaccine was released in 1963, one year after Olivia Dahl’s death.
Here, from the Los Angeles Times, is a graph of annual measles cases in the US from 2000 through 2018, and those in just over four months this year.

The increasing number of cases matters because measles are very contagious.

If you take an airplane trip and a measles-infected person — even who isn’t showing red spots yet — is on the plane, there’s a good chance you will get a call from the airline a few days later warning you that you have a chance of getting measles yourself.

But if you eat in a restaurant, ride a bus or go to a movie where there happens to be an infected person, your odds of getting the measles go way up and you won’t even be warned.

In the winter of 2014-2015, at least 125 cases of measles were reported among people who had paid recent visits to Walt Disney theme parks in Orange County, CA, including some visitors whose immunizations were up to date.    As we know, immunizations are not effective in 100 percent of cases, which is one reason why very broad-scale immunization programs are the most effective for all of us.




In addition to the encephalitis that killed Olivia Dahl, side effects of measles can include ear infections, eye infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, hepatitis and meningitis.

Small babies are at particular risk because the first measles vaccination is not recommended until children are between the ages of 12 months and 15 months.

Pregnant women also should be concerned because measles can cause stillbirth or miscarriage.

Effective vaccines have been proven to prevent measles for 56 years.  The US declared victory over measles in 2000.
Now it’s back.  How stupid are we?
Other fine Dahl titles are The WitchesThe Twits, Danny, the Champion of the World, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Esio Trot.  Any decent library will have a nice selection of these waiting for you to enjoy or share with children you know.

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