He was more than just the King of Rock and Roll. Elvis Presley popularised polio vaccination in the United States during the 1950s. Note that public health officials and healthcare workers had a hard time convincing the public about the importance of immunisation. The greater American public was essentially indifferent towards the importance of vaccination. There were also organisations that rallied and lobbied against polio vaccination or any forms of immunisation.
The American polio epidemic and the Salk polio vaccine
Poliomyelitis or polio is an infectious disease caused by the poliovirus. It first appeared in the United States around 1900. Regular instance of polio epidemic ravaged North American cities from 1930s to 1950s with thousands of cases and thousands of death.
The disease normally does not lead to death. Common symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, stiffness of the neck, and pain in the limbs. Some cases lead to permanent paralysis and rarer cases result in death.
Fear of polio became widespread in the U.S. The book “Polio: An American Story” by historian David M. Oshinsky mentioned that local governments would shutdown public places and lockdown their cities during instances of polio outbreaks.
Some companies used the fear of polio as a tool to sell disinfectants and even healthcare insurance. Polio became an American reality and the people increasingly became increasingly obsessed about personal hygiene and cleanliness.
But none of those lockdowns or disinfections worked. Polio continued to infect and affect Americans, especially the children. However, Oshinsky reiterated that the disease was never the raging epidemic portrayed by the media. He argued that children were more likely to die from road accidents and cancer.
Polio was an American reality nonetheless. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis poured considerable efforts to make polio a fearsome disease in their hopes to acquire funding for charity and to sponsor medical research. In 1948, the foundation asked medical researcher and virologist Jonas Salk to join their growing network of polio researchers.
With funding for supplies and researchers, coupled with several animal and human trials coupled with publicity, Salk finally announced his discovery of an effective polio vaccine in 1955. Physician and epidemiologist Thomas Francis Jr. declared the vaccine as safe and effective.
How Elvis Presley popularised polio vaccination
The discovery of the Salk polio vaccine was a major milestone in polio research. It provided a solution to eradicate the epidemic through immunisation. But the American public was not readily receptive of the concept of immunisation. The book “State of Immunity: The Politics of Vaccination in Twentieth-Century America” by James Colgrove mentioned that public health officials and the American government had a hard time convincing the people to receive the polio vaccine.
Several organisations had also opposed immunisation and other emerging healthcare initiatives. For example, the Citizens Medical Reference Bureau rolled out different communication strategies to discredit the Salk polio vaccine. They also used the fact that Salk was a Jew and the use of his vaccine was an anti-Christian effort aimed at contaminating the bodies of children.
Health officials lacked the necessary resources to counter arguments against polio vaccination. Nonetheless, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis specialised in public relations. The foundation had workers across the U.S. In 1956, they launched communication strategies that revolved around television, radio, and print publicity to promote polio vaccination.
One of the strategies employed by the foundation together with the New York City Health Department was to use celebrities. In October 1956, the two institutions launched a publicity stunt with the help of the young Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley was in New York on to tape a guest appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The foundation thought that tapping the popular American musician would be helpful in reaching younger people. They also tapped around 600 Elvis fan clubs around the U.S. to help promote the publicity stunt.
On 28 October 1956, Elvis Presley got a polio vaccination on national television. Other press people covered the event and newspapers across the U.S. published the resulting photographs.
The stunt pulled by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and New York City Health Department was also in coordination with the Teens Against Polio—another allied advocacy organisation that promoted polio and vaccine awareness. Using Elvis Presley as a celebrity advocate for polio vaccination coincided with the growing social and political involvement of young Americans. After all, the 1950s marked the emergence of teen culture in the U.S.
It is easy to conclude that Elvis Presley popularised polio vaccination in the United States for the simplest reason that he was an emerging superstar with a large fan base across the country. Note that the publicity stunt did not only appear in national TV but was also immortalised by print media coverage. The stunt indicated that the vaccine was safe, thus helping promote public confidence.
Elvis Presley continued to work for the foundation. Polio vaccination became one of his advocacies. He recorded different advocacy messages that urged the public, especially the younger population, to receive vaccination. He also endorsed events aimed at raising funding and spreading awareness through public demonstrations.
University of Cambridge historian Dr. Stephen Mawdlsey mentioned that Elvis Presley and the teenagers who rallied behind the Salk polio vaccine might be the first, largest, and most successful example of teen health activism.