By Kai Kupferschmidt
The beloved novelist and children’s author Roald Dahl once wrote an open letter describing how his daughter Olivia suffered from measles when she was 7 years old. Olivia seemed to be recovering, Dahl wrote, and he was sitting on her bed, teaching her how to build animals out of pipe cleaners, when he noticed that she had trouble coordinating her fingers’ movements.
“‘Are you feeling all right?’ I asked her.”
“‘I feel all sleepy,’ she said.”
“In 1 hour she was unconscious. In 12 hours she was dead.”
That happened in 1962, 1 year before the measles vaccine was developed. The virus had caused Olivia’s brain to swell—an often-fatal complication called measles encephalitis. Dahl wrote the letter for the Sandwell Health Authority in the United Kingdom in 1986, hoping it would help persuade parents to vaccinate their children. The letter began circulating again in 2015, when a large measles outbreak that began at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, sickened more than 100 children.
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