Some people seem to think the measles is a nuisance disease — irritating and briefly unpleasant, but otherwise harmless. For many, it’s not so bad. For others, the measles is serious and potentially fatal. Children under 5 are particularly vulnerable to complications, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the worst complications is measles encephalitis.

“Acute encephalitis occurs in approximately 0.1% of reported cases,” says the CDC. “Onset generally occurs 6 days after rash onset (range 1–15 days) and is characterized by fever, headache, vomiting, stiff neck, meningeal irritation, drowsiness, convulsions, and coma. Cerebrospinal fluid shows pleocytosis and elevated protein. The case-fatality rate is approximately 15%.”

Roald Dahl, the renowned author of “Boy,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda” and scores of other books and screenplays, lost his daughter Olivia to measles encephalitis in 1962. In 1988, about seven years before his death, he wrote a poignant plea for the Sandwell Health Authority in Britain urging everyone to get their kids vaccinated. Dahl’s recounting of his experience has been rediscovered and recirculated in recent days because of the measles outbreak in California, spread largely by unvaccinated individuals who came in contact with an infected visitor to Disneyland.

Here, in part, is what he wrote:

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.”

“Encephalitis has quietly been at work for hundreds of years, robbing families of their loved ones,” Ava Easton, Chief Executive of The Encephalitis Society, said in a statement emailed to the Post. She added:

Encephalitis can be caused by common infections.  In the case of measles one in 5,000 children contracting measles will develop acute Encephalitis: three out of 20 of those children who develop Encephalitis will die from it and 20-40% of those who develop Encephalitis will be left with permanent after-effects. Nevertheless, Encephalitis is a condition that many people have not heard of….
Roald Dahl’s letter coming into the public domain can only be seen as a positive thing, it is reigniting the debate and makes more people aware of Encephalitis.
 Roald Dahl wrote his letter 30 years ago but still today in the UK alone, 6000 people are diagnosed with Encephalitis each year, that’s 16 people every day.  This, it seems is also considered an underestimate as Encephalitis is very difficult to diagnose and like in the case of Roald Dahl daughter, is sadly often missed.


With the latest measles outbreak spreading fast, you may be surprised by the state with the best child vaccination rate in the country. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
The CDC is urging people to get vaccinated for measles amid an outbreak that began at Disneyland and has now spread to other states, including Utah, Washington, Oregon and Colorado. (Reuters)