Roald Dahl on the MMR Vaccine

I was always a fan of Roald Dahl. As a child, I loved his books and the movies inspired by his eclectic writing. Just thinking about flipping through the somewhat crude and yet enchanted illustrations and reading his colorful words actually brings me back to a state of childlike wonder. It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling I believe only Dahl can truly give.


I recently came across a piece by Dahl that didn’t leave me with the warm and fuzzies. It was a piece Dahl wrote to parents who chose not to give their children the MMR vaccine. This was written a long time before Jenny McCarthy campaigned against the vaccine due to the erroneous connection to autism. Dahl wrote this piece the year I was born about an incident that occurred the year my parents were born and now, I have a child of my own and this issue is as current and topical as ever. It’s as heartbreaking as it is compelling.

Measles: A Dangerous Illness

by Roald Dahl

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.

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 immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk.

In America, where measles immunisation is 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. [Since this was written in 1986, the success of the MMR vaccination has reduced this figure to several thousand each year, but unvaccinated children are still at risk, and some do still die of measles].

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 measles.

So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised?

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 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 immunisation.

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.

Measles is something parents often think of as a minor disease that is rare, especially in developed countries. But measles is currently one of the leading causes of death among young children. According to the World Health Organization, there were 122,000 deaths globally due to measles in 2012. This equates to about 330 deaths per day or 14 death every hour.

Currently there is a measles outbreak in Manhattan and the Bronx. As with any measles outbreak, unvaccinated children face the biggest risk of being affected. According to a Tech Times article, two of the affected children were not vaccinated because the parents decided not to. One of these parents chose not to vaccinate due to “talks” of the MMR vaccine causing autism.

As with any medicine, there ARE risks that come with the MMR vaccine. The most common risks are mild such as fever (affects one in six) and mild rash (affects one in twenty). Severe problems such as deafness, seizures and brain damage are considered very rare (less than one in a million doses) and are actually so rare, it’s difficult to tell if they are even caused by the vaccine. All this information is readily available via the CDC on a handy Vaccine Information Statement, as with all vaccines. Autism is not listed as a risk, because it is not a risk.

Every parent has to decide for themselves if the risk outweighs the benefit. In this case, I do believe the small risk that comes with the MMR vaccine is worth the protection. If my child was not vaccinated, the chances of him contracting measles is considerably low. But, as the current case in New York City shows us, it is very possible to contract measles and the complications can be dire.

I’m with Dahl on this one.

2 thoughts on “Roald Dahl on the MMR Vaccine

    1. I’m totally Ok with being “that mom” who think you should vaccinate your kids, provided that your kid is healthy and a good candidate for vaccination. I read the post, but since I tend to favor facts over speculation and anecdotal evidence, it didn’t hold much weight with me.


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