An 18-month-old boy was the third child paralyzed by naturally occurring poliovirus in Pakistan in 2017, we learned last week. Polio struck four so far in Afghanistan. Just seven in all the world. Tragic for them and their families, but remarkable compared to 350,000 cases a year in 1988 when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began.
When I’m not writing blog entries or historical fiction, my major project is writing the ongoing history of polio eradication. Conveying the drama gets harder as eradication draws near. Don’t blame the media for reporting polio outbreaks more often than achievements. Bad news draws us, the adrenaline rush is so delicious.
It’s got me considering the contradictory ways news affects emotions. An endless onslaught of bad news can instill depression, the opposite of an adrenaline high. Fight-or-flight responses, energizing in a crisis, turn debilitating when they go on without release. I’m told to give fictional protagonists not only distress (fear, misery, torment) but also resilience (strength, courage, ingenuity) to respond, whether their responses succeed or fail.
Does bad news hook you with drama and then drag you down? If you don’t make the perfectly reasonable choice to avoid the news, the trick may be to pair distress with resilience or stories of resilience. Take some positive action, however small. Fred Rogers’s mother famously advised him to look for the helpers.
The lesson for my polio writing is the reverse: to breathe life into success stories with tales of trouble. Seven children and their families are devastated, with others at risk. Migratory families are elusive. Violence stalks vaccinators, sometimes fatally. It’s not just the polio they prevent but the challenges they overcome that makes heroes of the protagonists.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.