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COVID-19 Lessons from Elvis’ Polio Vaccine
As of last Monday, every American over the age of 16 who wants a COVID-19 shot is eligible to get one.
It’s a historic landmark in the fight against the pandemic, and public health pros are now shifting their efforts to persuading more Americans to get vaccinated.
Elvis might be able to help.
In 1956, Elvis Presley was booked to play the biggest stage in the world – The Ed Sullivan Show. Before his performance, he held a press event to receive his dose of the polio vaccine.
Polio was infecting thousands of people every year – especially children – causing paralysis and sometimes even death when Jonas Salk invented a vaccine in 1955.
The vaccine was hailed as a medical triumph with the potential to protect millions. Yet immunization levels, particularly among American teens, remained low – until Elvis rolled up his sleeve.
When The King got the shot, his subjects followed suit. Before Elvis’ Ed Sullivan appearance, the polio vaccination rate among teens was just 0.6%. Six months later, the rate had jumped to 80%.
A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action
But historians point out Elvis’ involvement was just one tactic in a broader effort to convince more teenagers to get the vaccine. A group called Teens Against Polio undertook a massive campaign to influence their peers. They canvassed door to door, young women adopted “no shots, no dates” pledges, and local chapters hosted “Salk hop” dances where only vaccinated people could attend.
“It showed, almost for the first time, the power of teens in understanding and connecting with their own demographic,” professor Stephen Mawdsley said.
Compare that to today, when entire industries rise and fall with the habits of teenage consumers and the influencers who shape them.
Ultimately, the impact of Elvis’ inoculation and the efforts of countless teens is a lesson in using social influence and vivid examples in persuading people to act. With COVID-19 vaccinations, groups are using those same tactics in one of the most important public health campaigns in history.