A jab for Elvis helped America beat polio

By: Robin McKie
Source: Guardian News
March 17, 2021

On October 28, 1956, Elvis got a polio vaccination on national TV. That single event was responsible for raising immunization levels in the US from 0.6% to over 80% in just 6 months. No other single individual has had that kind of impact on healthcare in the US.

It was one of Elvis Presley's more unusual ventures. The king of rock'n'roll had just been enjoying his first taste of success with singles such as Heartbreak Hotel, and was about to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, when he was given an unexpected medical challenge. Would he agree to be vaccinated against polio in front of the press before the show? He did.

The resulting photographs were published in newspapers across the US. The publicity was part of a bid to help correct a major flaw in the nation's polio vaccination campaign, as Cambridge university historian Stephen Mawdsley revealed in a paper in the latest issue of the Journal of Cultural and Social History.

'The [Dr] Salk vaccine against polio had just been produced and young children were being vaccinated in their millions. However, teenagers, who were also vulnerable to polio, were not taking up the vaccine', Mawdsley told the Observer. 'Elvis was approached to provide publicity aimed at teenagers and agreed to help to put things right'.

His involvement in the polio vaccine program is outlined in a film, Teens Against Polio, which was released online by Cambridge University on Sunday to mark the start of World Immunisation Week. The project aims to close the 'immunization gap' that exists between those who get vaccines for diseases such as polio and those who do not.

The film offers intriguing insights on how that gap was closed in the US using the input of stars like Presley as well as Clark Gable and Mickey Rooney and highlights the profound change that has taken place among celebrities in their attitude to vaccines and other health programs over the past 60 years.

In the 1950s stars were supportive. Today many are vocal in their opposition to vaccine programmes. Earlier this month Robert De Niro continued to give verbal support to the film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe even though he had been forced to withdraw it from the Tribeca film festival because it supports the controversial anti-vaccine views of the disgraced UK doctor Andrew Wakefield, who directed the film. In doing so, De Niro joined modern showbiz stars - including Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy and Charlie Sheen - who have questioned the safety of vaccines.

The problem is that vaccines have become victims of their own success, said Mawdsley. 'We have largely forgotten what it is like to face an epidemic sweeping through a population'. This was not the case in the first half of the 20th century when a series of polio epidemics affected hundreds of thousands of children across the world. Many were left seriously incapacitated as a result. Victims included Franklin D Roosevelt, US president from 1933 to 1945.

A major research programme was launched to combat the disease and in 1955 Jonas Salk announced he had developed a vaccine which, after three shots had been administered, provided more than 90% protection. Vaccination programmes for children were launched. However, in the US few teenagers and adults sought immunisation, as most believed they were not at risk.

'This, sadly, was not the case', said Mawdsley. And so Elvis was recruited to boost teenager take-up of the polio vaccine. 'Presley Receives a City Polio Shot', announced the New York Times.

Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley.
'It was obviously a help in getting teenagers to take up the vaccine, but - intriguingly - not an overwhelming one', added Mawdsley. 'The real game-changer came through the teenagers themselves. With the help of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, they established a group called Teens Against Polio, canvassed door-to- door, and set up dances where only vaccinated individuals could get in. It showed, almost for the first time, the power of teens in understanding and connecting with their own demographic'.

The result was startling. The annual incidence of polio in the US decreased by nearly 90% between 1950 and 1960. 'Getting teenagers to take up the vaccine was critically important, and that success shows that it is possible to reach hard-to-influence groups - if you involve them in the right manner'.

The lesson is important, he believes, because in the wake of the hysteria against the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine - triggered by the alarms raised by Wakefield, who claimed that it could cause autism - another vaccination gap is being created. This has been created between those who will accept the vaccine and those who will not. Serious outbreaks of measles have occurred in several countries as a result.

'The lesson from this story is that a hard-to-influence group can still be reached', concluded Mawdsley. 'This could be by tapping into new forms of communication such as social media, or clever approaches to promoting vaccination to people opposed to vaccination. It can be done'.

Elvis Presley Photos Elvis Presley gets his Polio Shot | October 28, 1956

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