Little Bits of History

 October 28

Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 28, 2017

1956: Elvis Presley gets a polio vaccine on national TV. Poliomyelitis, sometimes called polio or infantile paralysis, is an infectious disease caused by the poliovirus. The disease causes muscle weakness or even paralysis and can last for just hours to days. However, not everyone fully recovers and some are left with lasting deficits to the muscles affected. About 2-5% of children and 15-30% of adults who contract the disease die. The disease has been around since pre-history but the numbers have waxed and waned over time. In the early 20th century, there was a surge in the number of cases seen in the US. Since the disease is caused by a virus, antibiotics are not effective against it and instead, the best outcome comes from not ever getting infected. A search for a vaccine began in 1935 with disastrous results.

In 1950, there was an outbreak with 58,000 cases reported in the US and in 1955, another outbreak lead to 35,000 cases. Dr. Jonas Salk produced an injectable vaccine made up of killed polio virus. It was widely tested and found to be between 80 and 90% effective against this disease which left mostly children with lifelong crippling aftereffects. While many people did respond to the news and got small children vaccinated, older people – especially teens – were not getting the protection. There were a variety of reasons for this. Apathy was one since the name “infantile paralysis” left many older people unaware that they could still catch the virus. Another was cost, because to be adequately immune took three injections at a cost of $3-5 per each visit. The last major block to vaccination was the fear of shots.

Using teens themselves to help spread the word that their own peer group needed to be immunized was helpful. Public officials enlisted teen icons as a way to help. To that end, on this day Elvis Presley was vaccinated live on TV. He was in New York City to tape a guest appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, when he was approached by the New York City Health Department and they decided to launch a publicity stunt. It worked and the vaccination rate soared from 0.6% to over 80% in the next six months. While the event was only locally televised, it was covered in the national media which helped spread the word to even more of Elvis’s fan base.

Work on a better vaccine continued and in 1961, Albert Sabin’s attenuated (weakened) living virus oral vaccine came on the market. It was both cheaper to produce and easier to administer. In April 2012 the World Health Assembly declared it had completed the polio eradication program globally. The Americas were declared polio free in 1994 and the rest of the world joined in the hopeful status. Today, there are only two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where there are still naturally spreading epidemics. These can, of course, then spread to neighboring regions via contagious transmission.

Childhood vaccines are one of the great triumphs of modern medicine. Indeed, parents whose children are vaccinated no longer have to worry about their child’s death or disability from whooping cough, polio, diphtheria, hepatitis, or a host of other infections. – Ezekiel Emanuel

Humans have always used our intelligence and creativity to improve our existence. After all, we invented the wheel, discovered how to make fire, invented the printing press and found a vaccine for polio. – Naveen Jain

When I was about 9, I had polio, and people were very frightened for their children, so you tended to be isolated. I was paralyzed for a while, so I watched television. – Francis Ford Coppola

Polio’s pretty special because once you get an eradication, you no longer have to spend money on it; it’s just there as a gift for the rest of time. – Bill Gates