Ophelia Dahl exclusive: The story behind Roald Dahl's letter

Ophelia Dahl exclusive: The story behind Roald Dahl's letter
·Global Anchor

By Molly McGuiness

In an exclusive interview, Ophelia Dahl, daughter of Roald Dahl, sat down with Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric to discuss the letter her father wrote that captured the world’s attention this week, the sister she never knew and the anti-vaccination debate that’s taken over the country.

Roald Dahl, the author of such beloved stories as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach” and “Matilda,” lost his eldest daughter, Olivia, to measles in 1962, when she was just 7 years old.

{Watch: Ophelia talk about growing up as Roald Dhal's daughter}

Her death left the author heartbroken. “He traveled everywhere with a small silver photograph frame with a picture of her inside… Whenever he went on vacation, he took this with him and would put it up in the room wherever he was,” Ophelia recounted.

He penned a public letter in 1988 as a plea to parents and children to take advantage of the vaccine that came too late for his own daughter.

“He thought if he talked about his own personal experience, that would awaken the slumber he felt people were in,” said Ophelia.

At a time when a current measles outbreak is fueling nationwide fear, the letter has resonated with millions of people. Twenty-seven years after Roald Dahl wrote that “parents who now refuse to have their children immunized are putting the lives of those children at risk,” the number of parents choosing not to have their children vaccinated is growing, and the anti-vaccination debate continues.

This week, politicians on both sides of the aisle weighed in. Sen. Rand Paul was criticized for saying in an interview, “I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” He added that he’d vaccinated his own kids, and said, “I’m not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they’re a good thing. But I think parents should have some input.”

Ophelia Dahl reacted to the GOP presidential hopeful’s comments, saying, “It’s irresponsible. I mean, it’s not based in fact. It’s not for the public good of a country. And I’m at a loss as to why someone would make such a claim when evidence is indisputable.”

Yet, despite the scientific and medical consensus that vaccinations are safe, there are pockets of the population that choose not to vaccinate.  

As co-founder and executive director of Partners in Health, a nonprofit global health organization, Ophelia Dahl has seen firsthand the importance of vaccinations and the vulnerability of those who don’t have access to them.

Noting the disparity that exists across the globe, she said, “Some people are willing to walk hours and hours barefoot to get their children vaccinated. And then, in other places, people need to be persuaded to vaccinate. I’ve seen it played out in places like Haiti where I’ve known kids who have died for lack of vaccinations.”

She stressed the importance of getting good information about science and data and said that even “a little bit of bad science is a dangerous thing.”

Ophelia’s father believed strongly in the importance of information, and the power it provides at any age.

It’s a belief that’s reflected in the letter he published in 1988. “You notice what he’s doing?” she said. “He’s actually appealing to children, too. When he says, ‘All schoolchildren who’ve not yet had a measles immunization should beg their parents to arrange for that,’ that is so classic ‘my dad.’ Like, get to the children, almost as though he trusts children more than he trusts adults to understand fact from fiction,” she said, smiling at the memory.

And looking back on the hope her father had, sharing his most personal story, she said, “If her death is what spurs people to think about what it would be like to lose a child, and his voice as a children’s writer could create a platform so that other people could know about this, and could allay some of their fears, I think it’d be helpful… He’d be pleased too.”

See below for the complete interview: