The day that Elvis died (assuming he did) – 39 years ago today, Aug. 16, 1977 – was a pretty big deal.
Not as well remembered was the day – Oct. 28, 1956 – that he got a polio shot.
Elvis Presley was 21 years old. The event, staged at CBS studios by the New York City health department, made the national television evening news and the New York Times. Photos suggest that he was having a blast.
Along with many other celebrities, the King of Rock and Roll, joined the fight against polio by supporting the March of Dimes and making public service announcements. (Watch this video to learn more about Elvis’ work supporting the fight against polio). The New York City health department arranged for the public inoculation in order to encourage adolescents — the group most susceptible to polio after young children — to get their shots. Only 10 percent of the city’s teenagers had received the newly licensed Salk vaccine.
I’d like to think that if Elvis were still with us (he’d be 81) he’d be getting an HPV shot — vaccination rates for the cancer-causing human papilloma virus are among the lowest of recommended vaccines — and tweeting about it. But he has left the stage, the suspected victim of a prescription drug overdose, an exotic way to go at the time but an all-too-common problem today. Instead of Elvis posing for a shot we have celebrities caught up in the trap of unscientific thinking promoting vaccine refusal. (There are, of course, celebrities with a burning love for vaccines).
Elvis never pretended to be a physician or a scientist but he looked to them for guidance. Now we even have a major-party presidential candidate, Republican Donald Trump, raising the long rejected link between vaccines and autism in a political debate last year. This is not a red-blue issue: Green Party candidate Jill Stein is a vaccine skeptic as well. If that irrational fear-based movement continues to gain ground and data-driven medical science and advances that can save lives are ignored, we’ll all be crying in the chapel, watching people get sick or even die from preventable diseases.
Luckily, the movement has a way to go in the United States. (It has had more success in Europe, and some vaccine-preventable diseases have returned.) Vaccine coverage among Americans ages 13 to 17 is far higher than in Elvis' day. August is National Immunization Awareness Month, a good time to check that you and your family are up to date on vaccine coverage. A link to the list of school immunization requirements for Philadelphia is here.
According to a survey conducted in 2014, and published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 87.6% to teenagers were up-to-date with the Tdap (tenanus-diphtheria-acellular pertussis) vaccine and 60% had meningitis vaccine coverage. The rate for HPV vaccine, which requires 3 doses, was lower, perhaps because of its cost or opposition to the inoculations on the grounds that the way to avoid a sexually transmitted disease is to abstain from sex. HPV is transmitted sexually and the vaccine can prevent most genital warts and most cases of cervical cancer, which is projected to kill 4,120 women this year. Young men and women who get the vaccine also can dramatically lower their risk of some anal and oral cancers, which are on the rise.
I miss Elvis, the King of Vaccines.
Editor's Note: This story was revised to correct how long ago it was that Elvis died. It was 39 years ago, not 29.