Table of contents:
- Terrible disease
- Ray of hope
- The king comes to the rescue
- Teenagers joined the fight
- How the vaccination movement changed the world
- How is the experience of those years useful now?
Video: How teenagers and rock 'n' roll made vaccination fashionable: King Elvis saves the world from an epidemic
2023 Author: Richard Flannagan | [email protected]. Last modified: 2023-05-24 13:10
The polio virus has kept millions of parents at bay for years. In America, by 1955, tens of thousands of children were infected, many remained disabled. Hope came with the discovery of a vaccine against this terrible disease. But those who wanted to be vaccinated were negligible. In search of a solution to this problem, the government attracted the most popular person in the United States at that time - Elvis Presley. The king of rock and roll was able to dramatically change the opinion of all Americans (and not only) about vaccination. How did the musician manage what the entire super-powerful state propaganda machine could not achieve?
Polio is an infectious disease. It is caused by a certain virus. It can end in paralysis, disability and even death. Until the early 20th century, this was not such a big problem in the United States. Until that time, citizens were regularly exposed to poliovirus infection through unsanitary drinking water, which strengthened their natural immunity. Also, mothers passed on immunity to this disease to their children through breast milk.
However, the modernization of sewerage and water supply systems resulted in fewer people being exposed to contamination. Children have become especially vulnerable to infection. In addition, there was a baby boom in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This created ideal conditions for widespread transmission of polio. Suddenly, immunity was no longer a given, and tens of thousands of cases of the disease began to appear every summer. Mostly children suffered.
Panic among the parents grew. Pools and drinking fountains were closed every summer to prevent the spread of the virus. Frightened adults watched their once active children walk on crutches or sit in wheelchairs. Polio outbreaks accelerated in the late 1940s and early 1950s, peaking at 58,000 in 1952.
Ray of hope
Then a breakthrough occurred in the scientific world. The Salk polio vaccine was invented. It was approved for use in 1955. The number of infections dropped sharply as more and more children were vaccinated. Conscientious adults have tried to vaccinate their children. But despite the general fear, vaccination covered only 0.6% of the population. This one was negligible. Teenagers especially did not want to be vaccinated.
The king comes to the rescue
No government campaigns to promote vaccination worked. It was decided to make a knight's move, as they say. Elvis Presley, the most popular among young people at that time, was called in to help.
The King of Rock and Roll was invited as a guest on The Ed Sullivan Show, the most watched television program of the time. But he was not called there to sing songs. Before the start of the show, in front of the press and himself, Ed Sullivan Presley was vaccinated. Elvis flashed his dazzling smile, rolled up his sleeve, and allowed a New York State official to stick the needle of a syringe filled with polio vaccine into his arm.
Then a large-scale advertising campaign for vaccination began. One Saturday night in Albion, a small town east of Battle Creek, Michigan, what the American government had hoped for happened. The teenagers didn't just want to get vaccinated, they queued up. The king was giving a concert. Entrance ticket price? Bared hand.
Such dance floors began to open all over the country. The teenagers were offered dancing, music and … vaccinations. It was 1958, and this was not your usual Saturday night social gathering. These evenings were called "solk-hop". They were only available to young people wishing to get the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk, or to show proof of vaccination.
Rock and roll has become an important part of the five-year war over polio vaccine hesitancy. This campaign has combined the scientific know-how of public health experts with the growing energy, creativity and even sexuality of a new driving force in American society. This force has become adolescents.
In part, the problem of promoting vaccination among adolescents was reduced to terminology. For years, people have called polio “infantile paralysis,” giving the impression that adolescents and adults are not at risk. Then there was a feeling of inconvenience to the three-dose regimen. Some were simply terrified of the injections or the vaccine itself.
“The teens felt healthy, almost invulnerable,” says Stephen Maudsley, social historian and professor of modern American history at the University of Bristol in England. In fact, they were vulnerable. They needed a vaccine to protect against the virus. But the same social forces that gave adolescents a false sense of their own invincibility ultimately became the secret weapon against polio.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, adolescents were generally not recognized as a separate social group. Then a series of changes followed in American society. Cars began to appear en masse. Education became compulsory, which prevented children from entering the labor market early. All this prompted the recognition of adolescents as a special demographic group in the United States.
The National Institute of Childhood Paralysis has begun to struggle with the fact that vaccination is proceeding slowly, and in adolescents it has completely stalled. It is a non-profit polio organization that distributed funds raised through charitable events. They began to specifically recruit employees directly from this hard-core demographic. In 1954, the organization began inviting groups of teenagers to their New York offices. There they were asked what they thought about vaccination, then they were told about its meaning. Young people talked with victims of polio, with people who lost their loved ones due to this terrible disease. After these lectures, if they agreed, they were hired to promote Salk's injections in their homeland. Indeed, it is very important for adolescents that adults treat them as equals and respect them.
Teenagers joined the fight
The teenage polio war took several forms. Officials hired teen idols like Elvis Presley and Debbie Reynolds to spread the word through public vaccination campaigns. At the same time, the adolescents, ambassadors of vaccination, became celebrities in their own right. They took part in mass events, their faces were replicated by the press.
Even teenage libido has been used to popularize the polio vaccine. “Some of the girls said they would not date boys if they had not been vaccinated against polio,” said Patti Hicks, national chair of Teens Against Polio, in 1958.
How the vaccination movement changed the world
There was also a downside to the national drive to vaccinate American teens: ailism. By promoting the polio vaccine, essentially as a way to stay productive, it stigmatized polio survivors. This group, having shown social activity, founded the movement for the rights of persons with disabilities. In the end, it was possible to achieve the adoption of the law on persons with disabilities in 1990.
It is difficult to assess exactly how much adolescent activism has influenced the adoption of the polio vaccine. Most importantly, their advocacy has helped change public attitudes towards vaccination in general. Vaccines are suddenly no longer available only for responsible adults or young children. They were for tough teens. Coverage of the population from a ridiculous 0.6% has turned into an impressive figure of 80%.
Advances in polio vaccine development have helped as well. In the 60s, the complex and expensive three-dose Salk vaccine was replaced by the less expensive one-shot vaccine. Since 1979, no cases of polio have been reported in the United States. Moreover, in 2016, only 42 cases of this disease were registered worldwide. Although the coronavirus pandemic, as well as military conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, likely led to a spike in polio in 2020. True, today all over the world polio vaccination is now considered a standard and included in the vaccination schedule.
How is the experience of those years useful now?
More than 60 years have passed since the vaccination fashion swept the United States. The United States is now engaged in yet another national vaccination campaign in the race to combat COVID-19. Vaccination hesitancy persists in some populations. Given past experience, the Biden administration recently announced plans to use celebrities in this fight. Will attract athletes, musicians and actors. Social media will be populated with relevant targeting.
Differences in political, social views of different generations fuel hesitation regarding vaccination. The adolescent vaccination miracle of the 1950s and 1960s offers lessons on how these differences can be used to benefit public health. The specialists are going to single out age groups of those who do not dare and recruit volunteers from their ranks. People will be trained and provided with complete information. The experience with Presley and the teens of the 50s will help save the world once again.
If you want to know more about the king of rock and roll, read our article - behind the sudden death of Elvis Presley: new details and expert opinions.