Will We Need Another Elvis to Combat Vaccine Phobia? (Op-Ed)

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Thomas J. Madden, Chairman and CEO, Transmedia Group

The technical name for it is trypanophobia, which is an extreme fear of injections or hypodermic needles. And in the 1950’s, it was rampant as thousands of teenagers were afraid to take a vaccination to protect themselves against the scourge of that time, polio.

There are vestiges of that same fear in people today who’ll need to be coaxed or persuaded that newly developed vaccines against COVID-19, such as the one from Pfizer, are not only effective, but safe.

Back in the 1950’s, the Salk vaccine against polio had just been produced and millions of young children were being vaccinated.  Teenagers, who were also vulnerable to polio, however, were not taking up the vaccine.

Here’s what the New York City Department of Health did to combat that problem.  It launched a massive publicity campaign to promote vaccination against polio.  The following year almost 900 thousand New Yorkers were vaccinated, and the number of new cases declined sharply. 

Elvis to the Rescue

A highlight of the campaign occurred backstage at CBS Studio 50 before an airing of The Ed Sullivan Show.

It was there that New York City Commissioner of Health Leona Baumgartner held the arm of Elvis Presley as Assistant Commissioner Harold Fuerst administered the polio vaccine to the king of rock n roll, Elvis Presley.  And so, Elvis was recruited to boost teenager take-up of the polio vaccine.

In 1963, the health commissioner at that time announced that vaccination had reduced the number of new cases in Gotham to zero.

It was one of Presley’s most valiant ventures. The king of rock’n’roll had just been enjoying his first taste of success with singles such as Heartbreak Hotel, when he was given that unexpected medical challenge. Would he agree to be vaccinated against polio in front of the press before the show? He did.

The resulting photographs were published in newspapers across the US. “Presley Receives a City Polio Shot,” announced The New York Times.

The publicity was part of a bid to help correct a major flaw in the nation’s polio vaccination campaign.

The publicity closed the “immunization gap” that exists between those who get vaccines for diseases and those who do not and most assuredly there will be those leery about taking the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19.

So perhaps President Elect Biden, you’d better start recruiting some rappers and other singing stars and celebrities to take the first shots so we don’t have people  questioning the safety and avoiding a vaccine that’s more than 90 percent effective and then wind up checking themselves into the Heartbreak Hotel.

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