Elvis Presley: The Story of How ‘The King’ Sparked the End of Polio

by Suzanne Halliburton

Let’s drift back to 1956 when Elvis Presley first burst onto the American music scene with his brand of sultry brand of rock and roll.

On his second-ever appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis possibly saved millions of lives.

Here’s why. He sang “Hound Dog, the cover he used to close his shows. But in a pre-show press conference backstage at CBS Studio 50, Elvis rolled up his sleeve on his left arm and got a shot.

This was a huge moment. This sexy, cool young singer was on the cusp of superstardom. And by taking the shot, Elvis endorsed its safety. The photograph appeared in newspapers across the country. Presley also became part of an ad campaign. Movie stars Clark Gable and Mickey Rooney also endorsed the vaccine, lending their fame to the cause.

Jonas Salk Developed Polio Vaccine in 1955

Jonas Salk had developed a vaccine the year before. Polio pandemics had rocked the world for more than a decade. It sounds dreadfully familiar to what’s happening in 2020 with Covid-19.

However, the polio virus hit children the worst. The virus paralyzed children. Some died. Others couldn’t breath on their own. Stats show that at its peak in the 1940s and 50s, polio killed or paralyzed as many as 500,000 people in the world every year.

Still, months after Salk developed the vaccine, teen-agers and young adults didn’t believe they needed to get the shot. That’s why Elvis was pulled into the campaign. His fans were the main people who needed the vaccine so that the world could eradicate the virus.

“The Salk vaccine against polio had just been produced and young children were being vaccinated in their millions,” said Stephen Mawdsley, a historian at Cambridge University. “However, teenagers, who were also vulnerable to polio, were not taking up the vaccine. Elvis was approached to provide publicity aimed at teenagers and agreed to help to put things right.”

Relevancy of Elvis’s Involvement Resurged in 2020

Several Covid vaccinations are being developed. England and Canada started giving shots this week.

 A U.S. government advisory panel on Thursday approved the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Another vaccine likely will be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well. Health care workers and those most at risk for Covid will be first in line for the vaccine.

Sometime next year, the vaccines should be available to the general public.

But will the public hurry to take the shot? Is there a modern-day Elvis who will woo Americans?

A Gallup poll released earlier this week showed that 63 percent of Americans are willing to be immunized. Gallup conducted the poll in mid-November, after the presidential election.

The approval is a big jump from earlier in the fall, when only 50 percent of Americans said they were willing to be vaccinated.

The Ad Council released a campaign earlier this week to help spread the word about Covid prevention among the Black community. The campaign is called “The Power of Us.” Celebrities like Viola Davis, Simone Biles and Questlove are featured in the commercials.

Former Presidents Are Joining Covid Vaccine Efforts

Are former U.S. presidents big enough celebrities to influence Americans? Surely, they’ll influence someone.

George W. Bush said he would take a Covid shot and have it televised. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton also have volunteered to get a Covid shot in a very public way. President-elect Joe Biden also has said he will be vaccinated once it’s approved.

“People like Anthony Fauci, who I know and I’ve worked with, I trust completely,” Obama, 59, said in an interview with SiriusXM host Joe Madison. “So, if Anthony Fauci tells me this vaccine is safe, and can vaccinate, you know, immunize you from getting COVID, absolutely, I’m going to take it.”

“I promise you that when it’s been made for people who are less at risk, I will be taking it,” the 44th president added, noting that the vaccine will likely first become available for high-risk communities. “I may end up taking it on TV or having it filmed, just so that people know that I trust this science, and what I don’t trust is getting COVID.”

It all harkens back to an October evening 64 years ago, when Elvis Presley, one of the biggest celebrities in the world, said it was cool to trust science and get a shot.