Growing up, I remember a young woman, who lived down our lane, walking with a limp on her leg. I gradually learnt that this was as a result of polio, where one of her legs were shorter than the other, and that she had contracted the virus at a young age. I came to understand polio this way. But, that is all I knew about the virus.
Polio is rare. In fact, it is close to extinction, and this is seen in the numbers. According to WHO, while in the late 1980s, poliovirus paralysed over 350,000 ever year, as little as 37 cases were reported in 2016. Since 2008, although around 20 countries have reported polio outbreaks, currently, it is prevalent mainly in three countries – Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, where eradication efforts being intensified and more collaborative efforts are seen. For example, in Nigeria, volunteers continue to administer the polio vaccine to children under the age of 5, whereas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with security risks hindering access in certain areas, organisations are increasingly adopting innovative approaches to reach the vulnerable.
Yet, there is an urgent need to continue these trends. WHO notes that despite progresses in eradicating polio, even a single case of infection can pose a threat to children all over the world. In fact, the virus can be carried into a polio-free country, impacting unimmunised populations. It is noted that the failure to eradicate polio could see the resurgence of as many as 200,000 new cases annually. At the same time, the Gates Foundation has warned that reduced US aid towards public health projects in foreign countries can lead to illnesses such as polio making a comeback, given that its eradication depends significantly on investments in education and vaccination.
Speaking on ‘evoking illness in fiction and non-fiction’, David Oshinsky, author of Polio: An American Story, raises a valid point, as he emphasises on adding new material to a story – “there’s no reason to write another book on polio unless you think you have something new to say.” Yet, a writer can assume a sense of responsibility in addressing questions of the medical sciences, and Oshinsky elaborates on this in his reasons for writing Polio: An American Story,
“What I was trying to do was show the arrogance on the one hand of medical science, which had basically closed the door on this particular field, and on the other hand an anti-vaccine movement that does not have the historical sense of what we had gone through years ago…”
Polio: An American Story, reads somewhat like a medical mystery. Winning the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for History, Oshinsky cleverly weaves the scientific, the social, and the cultural. It is an insightful and gripping account of the disease, its cure, and the terror of polio that spread over daily life. In some sense, it is also a critique of the institution, and healthcare governance structures.
As much as Oshinsky’s account informs, Philip Roth’s Nemesis is raging. Telling the story of a frightening polio outbreak during a steamy summer in Newark in 1944, at the centre of Nemesis is a young playground director, Bucky Cantor. Unable to serve in the war due to his weak eyes, Cantor faces a bigger battle from within the community and within himself as more and more children in his playground contract polio. What makes this a more powerful read is how Roth convincingly captures every piece of pain, fear, and anger that the disease brings. In doing so, he demonstrates the role and responsibility of a fiction writer; the ability to create a sense of the lived experience and build empathetic connections.
Is there something new to say about polio? Perhaps not. Oshinsky best summarises polio’s struggles and successes in what he says,
“Today the word ‘polio’ describes a vaccine to be taken, not a disease to be feared”
Yet, given warnings of how deadly a disease polio can be, if history teaches us a lesson, and if fiction can contribute towards this is, there is danger in forgetting.