Elvis’ Polio Vaccine Raises Immunization Levels
On October 28, 1956, Elvis Presley received a widely publicized polio vaccine that helped to promote the widespread immunization of teenagers around the country.
In 1947, U.S. physician Jonas Salk began research on the polio virus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. After discovering there were three strains of the virus, he worked to develop a vaccine that would kill each one.
Salk conducted his first field tests in 1952. The vaccine, injected with a needle, was found to reduce the incidence of polio, and was released for use in the U.S. on April 12, 1955. Over the next year, millions of young children received the polio vaccine. However, teenagers, who were also vulnerable to polio, were not getting the vaccine.
Around this same time, Elvis Presley was quickly on his way to becoming one of America’s most famous stars, and was particularly popular among teenagers. Hoping to harness his popularity for this cause, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis asked Elvis if he would get the polio vaccine on-camera to help raise awareness and encourage teens to get the vaccine themselves.
Elvis was always glad to help a deserving cause and gladly agreed to join in the promotion. The foundation also called on members of 600 Elvis fan clubs to help promote the event. On October 28, 1956, he was scheduled to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Before the show began, Elvis was filmed and photographed receiving the vaccine. The video played on national television and the photos appeared in newspapers around the country. Elvis also met with March of Dimes poster girl Joanne Wilson. Elvis would continue to promote polio vaccination in the coming years, recording special advocacy messages, and endorsing events aimed at fundraising and awareness.
In addition to Elvis’ public vaccine demonstration, the foundation also created Teens Against Polio. These teens went door-to-door to raise awareness, held special dances for vaccinated teens, and more. The foundation also promoted the fundraising efforts of the March of Dimes.
Elvis’ public appearances coupled with the efforts of teens and the March of Dimes all paid off. Immunization levels in the U.S. increased from .6% to over 80% in just six months, and by 1960, instances of polio in the U.S. decreased by almost 90%.
Click here for a neat video about Elvis’ polio awareness campaign.
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