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Stephanie's Measles Mischief by John Stumbles
When Olivia Dahl was seven she got ill with measles and had to stay in bed. Her father used to sit by her bedside and read to her. After a while she started to get better. But then one morning when she seemed much better and her father was sitting with her showing her how to make little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners she started to feel sleepy and her fingers wouldn't work properly. The measles had got into her brain and made it swell up. The doctors tried all they could do but they couldn't save her, and just a few hours later she died.
Olivia's father was called Roald. After being in the Second World War, where he was in the Air Force and fought bravely in many battles, he became a very good writer. He wrote lots of great stories for children and he and his stories became famous. His first story for children was James and the Giant Peach which he wrote while Olivia was still alive and dedicated to her. Another was The BFG which he wrote twenty years after Olivia died and also dedicated to her.
A few years after writing The BFG Roald wrote a little story called Measles: A Dangerous Illness telling everybody about how Olivia had died of measles and how there was nothing anybody could do to protect children against it when Olivia got it but that now there are marvellous medicines called vaccines which can stop children getting measles in the first place, but not all parents were getting their children protected by getting them vaccinated. He said he thought those parents were obstinate or ignorant or afraid and they were putting their children's lives at risk because the chances of a child getting ill from the vaccine itself were about a million to one while the dangers of measles itself are much worse.
Even though Roald wrote his story about how Olivia died years and years ago there are still people who refuse to let their children be vaccinated. Some of them say that measles isn't really dangerous, and even that it is good for children to get it! Fortunately nowadays so many children are vaccinated that measles is quite rare, so even children who aren't vaccinated aren't in much danger thanks to all the other children who are protected and so can't get measles to pass on to them.
One of the grown-ups who says that measles is good for children and they should all get it is called Stephanie Messenger. She has written a book telling children that getting measles is fine as long as you eat carrot juice and melon, and that vaccines can make you sick and don't work and can even make measles worse if you eat lots of sweets. Maybe she thinks that it was Olivia's mum and dad's fault that she died of measles and that if they'd given her carrot juice and melon and not let her have any sweets she would have been all right and her brain wouldn't have swelled up and killed her.
Stephanie Messenger has called her book ''Melanie's Marvellous Measle'', which is just like the title of a famous story Roald Dahl wrote called''George's Marvellous Medicine''. What would Roald think of Stephanie making the title of her book sound like his, when she is telling parents not to get their children vaccinated and making it seem as if it's their fault if their children die of measles because they must have been giving them the wrong food? Would he be sad or angry because it reminded him of how Olivia had died and how Stephanie's book might make other children die of measles? We will never know because Roald died in 1990 so he can't tell Stephanie Messenger what he thinks of her and her book.
Although Roald can't tell us what he thinks of Stephanie's book we know what he wanted to tell us about measles and vaccination because of the story he wrote about it, so maybe it would be a good way of remembering Olivia and Roal to hear it again. So here it is.
''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.
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. LET THAT SINK IN. 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.
FOOTNOTE: Roald Dahl wrote that piece in 1986. I'm sure he would have been pleased to know that now, half a century after Olivia's death, vaccination rates have risen to the point that deaths from measles are almost unknown in the UK. His pleasure might, however, have been alloyed by knowing how valuable and relevant his cautionary tale is, still, today. As for what he might have thought of Ms Messenger's opus, and of her appropriation of the style of one of his stories' titles for it, perhaps it's a mercy he was spared that. - John Stumbles, 2013


Dahl also wrote an account, in a school exercise book hidden away at the back of a drawer in his writing shed, of taking Olivia into hospital and what followed:

Awful drive. Lorries kept holding us up on narrow roads. Got to hospital. Ambulance went to wrong entrance. Backed out. Arrived. Young doctor in charge. Mervyn and he gave her 3mg sodium amatol. I sat in hall. Smoked. Felt frozen. A small single bar electric fire on wall. An old man in next room. Woman doctor went to phone. She was trying urgently to locate another doctor. He arrived. I went in. Olivia lying quietly. Still unconscious. She has an even chance, doctor said. They had tapped her spine. Not meningitis. It’s encephalitis. Mervyn left in my car. I stayed. Pat arrived and went in to see Olivia. Kissed her. Spoke to her. Still unconscious. I went in. I said, “Olivia… Olivia.” She raised her head slightly off pillow. Sister said don’t. I went out. We drank whiskey. I told doctor to consult experts. Call anyone. He called a man in Oxford. I listened. Instructions were given. Not much could be done. I first said I would stay on. Then I said I’d go back with Pat. Went. Arrived home. Called Philip Evans. He called hospital. Called me back. “Shall I come?” “Yes please.” I said I’d tell hospital he was coming. I called. Doc thought I was Evans. He said I’m afraid she’s worse. I got in the car. Got to hospital. Walked in. Two doctors advanced on me from waiting room. How is she? I’m afraid it’s too late. I went into her room. Sheet was over her. Doctor said to nurse go out. Leave him alone. I kissed her. She was warm. I went out. “She is warm.” I said to doctors in hall, “Why is she so warm?” “Of course,” he said. I left.


Sample pages from Stephanie Messenger's book can be seen on Amazon.com. There is a summary of the book in Skepticat's review.

The authenticity of Dahl's story is discussed on Berkshire Skeptics Society's blog (which also carried Dahl's story).

A young medic explains how the immune system and vaccines work, and addresses anti-vax arguments in these articles:


Comments? please email me

19th February 2013

My name is Glyn and I live in Adelaide South Australia.

I am a Registered Nurse and I worked in paediatrics for ten years. In that time I saw three children who had become very disabled following complications from measles. These children had suffered from Sub Acute Sclerosing Pan Enchepalitis, SSPE.

These children had, as a result of the infection suffered major brain injuries and as a result were totally dependent on others for all aspects of their care. All three children died in their teens from complications of being bed or chair fast.

Like the UK many parents in Australia choose not to allow their children to immunised I believe that America has the right idea, it should be compulsory.

Glyn Crisp RN


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