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The Day Elvis Helped Fight Polio

Events | October 28, 2019

Elvis Presley receiving a polio vaccination from Dr. Leona Baumgartner and Dr. Harold Fuerst at CBS Studio 50 in New York City. Source: (Photo by Seymour Wally/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Never underestimate the persuasive power of celebrities to advance a cause. Actress Jenny McCarthy, who has no medical or science degree, has spent the last 10 years claiming that there is a strong link between vaccines and autism. This claim has been disproven again and again, yet so many people listen to McCarthy's opinion because of her star power, not her medical background. Years before McCarthy was born, however, researchers tapped the tremendous star power of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, to promote vaccines, particularly to teens and young adults. And it worked. This is how, on this day in 1956, the King helped to combat polio. 

Polio patients in iron lungs filled hospital wings. Source: (latimes.com)

Polio, a Massive Health Crisis

By the 1950s, polio was the single biggest threat to American children. The virus infected more than 60,000 children annually, and about 3,000 of those children died from the virus while thousands more were paralyzed. The paralysis went so deep that it impacted the patients' lungs, forcing them into artificial breathing machines called iron lungs that were set up at hospitals around the country. Though it mainly impacted children, the poliovirus did not discriminate, and neither did its lifelong health complications. Everyone was susceptible, even Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served as president from 1933 to 1945.

Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine. Source: (thenewatlantis.com)

The Polio Vaccine

After Roosevelt and then Truman pushed for research into an effective vaccine against polio, a physician and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh named Jonas Salk took up the cause. After much trial and error, Salk developed what he claimed was a vaccine that would prevent polio. Salk was confident in his work, but to test it, he inoculated more than two million kids with his vaccine. It worked. The number of new polio cases plummeted, and Salk was hailed as a hero. 

Infants and youngsters were getting vaccinated, but not teens. Source: (theatlantic.com)

Vaccinating the Population

Widespread vaccinations against polio began in 1955, but at first, most of those receiving the vaccine were children. Teens and adults largely opted out, believing they weren't at risk. Vaccines are most effective when there is herd immunity, meaning that the majority of the people in a population are vaccinated. This way, the virus cannot take hold. Salk's vaccine was working, but because so many teens and young adults were not vaccinated, polio still posed a threat. 

Just before Elvis's famous appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show", he received his polio vaccine. Source: (thoughtco.com)

Enter Elvis

Around the same time, Elvis Presley's star was on the rise. He had a few huge singles to his name, including "Heartbreak Hotel," and he was booked to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show on October 28, 1956. Public health officials saw a unique opportunity to send their message to the young people who were crazy about Elvis.

Elvis showed his teenage fans that getting a polio vaccine was the cook thing to do. Source: (waterloorotary.org)

Elvis Gets Shot

When the King was asked if he would do his part to encourage teens to get the polio vaccine, he readily agreed. The plan was to vaccinate Elvis on television and in front of photographers who would plaster newspapers and magazines with pics of Elvis getting his shot.

Elvis continued to advocate for polio vaccinations. Source: (elvisechoesofthepast.com)

Teens Followed Elvis's Lead

Using Elvis as an advocate for vaccination was genius. After the American public saw photographs of the King getting his polio vaccine and urging them to do the same, they lined up to get their own. In just six months, the polio vaccination rate among American teens went from 0.6% to more than 80%, and researchers give the Elvis stunt most of the credit.

Thanks in part to Elvis, polio was eradicated in the U.S. Source: (expressnews.com)

Eradicating Polio

Thanks largely to the willingness of Elvis to lend his star power to the cause, polio cases declined significantly starting in 1956, and that decline only continued. Within just four years, incidents of polio decreased by as much as 90%, and in 1979, the Centers for Disease Control released a statement declaring that the poliovirus had been completely eliminated from the United States. Jonas Salk and Elvis Presley may seem like an unlikely duo, but the two of them are responsible for ridding the country from one of the biggest public health threats faced by American children in the last century. 

Tags: Elvis Presley | medical stuff of the past | music

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.