In 1952, in the middle of the Cold War, a survey revealed that the greatest fear of the Americans was a nuclear conflict with the USSR. However, immediately afterward, what scared them the most was polio. The “polio” virus killed thousands of children each summer and condemned many more to spend the rest of their lives in a wheelchair or on a respirator. The worst nightmare of the parents of the time.
That year, the United States had suffered the worst polio outbreak in its history, with 3,000 deaths and about 20,000 paralyzes, but the vaccine had finally appeared. Dr. Jonas Salk had made it from dead viruses and injected it to a group of volunteers including himself, his wife, and their three children. On March 26, 1953, the doctor announced on a radio program that everyone had developed antibodies and none had become ill.
On its cover the next day, the New York Times He said it was “the culmination of one of the greatest collective efforts in history,” but not everyone was convinced. One of the most influential journalists in the country, Walter Winchell, told his millions of listeners in April 1954 that the vaccine “could be killer.”
It had already been tested in 7,500 children without adverse effects, and during that year vaccination was extended to a million more with good results. But then the real crisis came.
In 1955, one of the laboratories that manufactured the vaccine made a mistake in its preparation. The process by which he had to “kill” the virus before injecting it into people did not work, and the vaccine itself infected 40,000 children with polio, paralyzing 200 and killing 10. The process was corrected, the company of the group of manufacturers and the vaccination plan was continued, but fears increased and many adolescents and young people were still not vaccinated.
Elvis to the rescue
New York was one of the great promoters of the vaccine, because the city had been one of those that had suffered the most in the polio epidemics. In 1916 alone, 2,400 New Yorkers died, 80% of whom were children under the age of five.
Perhaps due to the false idea that the virus only affected the little ones, many adolescents and young people were “passing” from being vaccinated. By October 1956, one million city dwellers had already received the injection, but only 10% of adolescents had. The city council wanted to convince the rest.
Then Elvis Presley was only 21 years old, but he was already a star. On his last visit to Ed Sullivan’s television show, he had been seen by 60 million people, more than a third of the entire US population. That is why when “the king” moved back to New York to participate in the same show on October 28, 1956, they convinced him to take advantage of the trip to take a very special photo.
That Sunday afternoon, after the artist rehearsed his performance, cameras swirled behind the scenes at CBS’s legendary Broadway studio to see the star roll up his sleeves. As the New York City Councilor for Health held her left arm, her number two injected a smiling Elvis with the vaccine created by Jonas Salk.
A few hours later, “the king” was singing Love Me Tender without the slightest side effect and having given, in the words of the councilor, “a good example to the youth of the country.”
Elvis continued to collaborate in the fight against polio beyond the photo. The following year he recorded an advertisement soliciting donations for an organization that had been instrumental in the discovery of the vaccine, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Its founder had been President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had become infected and had been left in a wheelchair shortly before turning 40.
In addition to having Elvis, the organization had a group of activists to convince teenagers to get vaccinated
Through large annual campaigns known as the “march of the dimes,” the foundation had been able to raise millions to advance research into the disease and care for its patients. Crowds of Hollywood stars collaborated with the cause and, in addition to having Elvis, the organization had its own group of adolescent activists to convince that group to get vaccinated.
The TAPs, or “Teens Against Polio,” held mass vaccinations, parties with live music that could only be accessed with a vaccination certificate, or campaigns to ask teenage girls not to go out on dates with unvaccinated boys. They also organized awareness talks in schools, given by victims of polio paralysis.
It worked. If in 1952 there were 60,000 cases of polio in the United States, ten years later there were 900, and by 1979 the disease was officially eradicated in the country. Polio is still incurable today, but vaccines have kept it active in only three countries around the world. A resounding success of science with a little help from the King of Rock.