Did Elvis Presley Receive a Polio Vaccination on Live TV in 1956 and Raise Immunization Revels to 80 Percent?

On September 18 2019, a Reddit user shared the following post to r/interestingasfuck, along with the claim that Elvis Presley’s televised 1956 polio vaccination helped boost the popularity of the vaccine not long after its introduction:

Commenting that the act was “exactly what it means to be a good influencer” (and tacitly criticizing anti-vaccine celebrities in 2019), the screenshot’s text read:

In 1956 Elvis Presley got a polio vaccination on national tv. That one event was partly responsible for raising immunization levels in the united states from 06% to 80 % in just 6 months.

In the picture, a smiling Presley stood between a man administering the shot and a woman holding his elbow. No additional information about the image accompanied the original post, which proved extremely popular on Reddit. Some commenters alluded to the lack of context, replying:

“The title conveys 0 information as well. Elvis’ broadcasted vaccination could have contributed 0.00001% to the 79.4% increase in vaccinations. Saying it “contributed” to a large % increase is designed to make you think “oooo ahh” by making you subconsciously think he contributed 79.4% of something. Bleh titling.”

“Heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano retired in 1956. That one event was partially responsible for raising immunization levels in the United States from 0.6% to 80% in just 6 months.

Right. Salk didn’t announce the results of his dead-virus vaccine until 1955, and later that year vaccinations were suspended for safety concerns after 11 people died. I’m sure Elvis didn’t hurt, but surely releasing the vaccine to the general public in 1956 also contributed to the increase in people getting vaccinated.”

Another commenter accused the original poster of karma farming:

Technically, excellent titling as this post is a karma farm.

The image and claim were shared to r/oldschoolcool in December 2018 (re-shared from r/vaxxhappened). In October 2018, a near-verbatim version of the claim (minus the image) was shared to Twitter in December 2018; that tweet credited Presley with “basically [eradicating] polio in America”:

Most would credit Jonas Salk for the eradication of polio, however, as they subsequently conceded. A 2012 World Journal of Virology article stated that the vaccine, discovered and developed by virologist and researcher Salk, was adopted across the United States in April 1955:

In 1954, the inactivated vaccine was tested in a placebo-controlled trial, which enrolled 1.6 million children in Canada, Finland and the United States[13]. In April 1955, [Jonas] Salk’s vaccine was adopted throughout the United States. The incidence of paralytic poliomyelitis in the United States decreased from 13.9 cases per 100 000 in 1954 to 0.8 cases per 100,000 in 1961.

As of July 1955, six million children had been vaccinated for polio. According to 2011 research published in Public Health Reports, mitigating factors may have driven interest in polio vaccine compliance:

From the early 1940s to 1952, annual incidence rates of polio surged, and the American public became terrified by outbreaks that occurred in urban and rural areas throughout the U.S.

As for the basic elements of the claim, a Getty Images stock photograph caption described the circumstances of the image, one of several from the event. Getty identified the man and woman in the image:

UNITED STATES – OCTOBER 28 [1956]: Elvis Presley receiving a polio vaccination from Dr. Leona Baumgartner and Dr. Harold Fuerst at CBS studio 50 in New York City. (Photo by Seymour Wally/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

October 28 1956 marked Elvis’ second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, during which he was vaccinated for polio in support of the March of Dimes. A New York City Department of Records and Services page noted that after the polio vaccine was introduced widely in the US in April 1955, Baumgartner began “a systematic program to inoculate school children.” Baumgartner’s campaign included Presley’s newsworthy vaccination:

The Department of Health even enlisted Elvis Presley to help make the case for young people to get vaccinated. In October 1956, Presley was photographed, filmed and interviewed while he received the shot on a trip to New York. Commissioner Baumgartner can be seen holding Presley’s arm, while Assistant Commissioner Dr. Harold Fuerst administered the shot.

In April 2016, the Guardian looked back at Elvis’ involvement in early campaigns promoting the polio vaccine, reporting:

The resulting photographs were published in newspapers across the US. The publicity was part of a bid to help correct a major flaw in the nation’s polio vaccination campaign, as Cambridge university historian Stephen Mawdsley revealed in a paper in the latest issue of the Journal of Cultural and Social History.

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

In the article, the Guardian referenced celebrities — including Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Charlie Sheen, and Robert DeNiro — who had publicly questioned the safety of vaccines in more recent times. Mawdsley noted that Presley was approached because in the United States, “few teenagers and adults” had sought immunization against polio, believing they were not at risk. Mawdsley opined the singer’s effect on vaccination rates was not necessarily a “game-changer.” Instead, something even more interesting happened:

“It was obviously a help in getting teenagers to take up the vaccine, but — intriguingly — not an overwhelming one,” added Mawdsley. “The real game-changer came through the teenagers themselves. With the help of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, they established a group called Teens Against Polio, canvassed door-to- door, and set up dances where only vaccinated individuals could get in. It showed, almost for the first time, the power of teens in understanding and connecting with their own demographic.”

The result was startling. The annual incidence of polio in the US decreased by nearly 90% between 1950 and 1960. “Getting teenagers to take up the vaccine was critically important, and that success shows that it is possible to reach hard-to-influence groups — if you involve them in the right manner.”

In a separate April 2016 University of Cambridge Research article, Mawdsley again emphasized the role of teen canvassers in the success of campaigns to promote the polio vaccine:

Some canvassed door to door or gave talks at schools; others organised car washes and peanut sales, or visited polio wards and rehabilitation centres. “No shots, no dates” was a recurring phrase, and teens were often asked at school dances to prove they were immunised before gaining entry. “By using exclusive dances as a tactic, young volunteers were able to exploit the fear of missing out as a means to increase vaccine uptake among teens,” he says.

In a 2016 “History Channel” Facebook post, the page referenced unspecified “reports” to credit Presley with raising vaccination rates from 0.6 percent to a whopping 80 percent, but we were unable to substantiate those numbers. When those specific numbers were cited elsewhere,  it was in a claim that Presley’s vaccination had “played a significant role” in bringing up the immunization levels in the U.S. “to over 80% from a minuscule 0.6%, in just six months,” but not the only role. However, those figures were unsupported, and they appeared to originate in a 2011 blog post advertising the digitization of medical records, with no added reference material:

Recently, someone asked the question: “Who is the one individual that has helped save the most money in the US healthcare industry in the last century?” The answer — surprisingly —is Elvis Presley. On October 28, 1956, Elvis got a polio vaccination on national TV. That single event was responsible for raising immunization levels in the US from 0.6% to over 80% in just 6 months. No other single individual has had that kind of impact on healthcare in the US.

At least one mass vaccination was reported in 1955, in San Diego, California. In October 2018, NBC News revisited Presley’s televised vaccination, citing rates and dates, again making no clear causal link:

Sixty-two years ago Sunday, Elvis Presley took the stage at CBS studios in New York and smiled as a city health official stuck a needle in his left arm. The publicity stunt, broadcast nationwide before Presley’s appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” was meant to convince the American public that the new polio vaccine was safe.

It worked. And playing to Presley’s demographic apparently helped. About 75 percent of Americans under 20 had received at least one polio shot by August 1957, when the first national survey was taken; this rose to nearly 90 percent by September 1961, according to a 1962 public health report.

It was certainly true that Elvis Presley granted public health official Dr. Leona Baumgartner’s request that he receive a polio vaccination on live television. Additionally, Presley’s participation in the March of Dimes public service announcement has been revisited and lauded amidst anti-vaccine rhetoric in recent years. Recollection of Elvis Presley’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show are often accompanied by claims that he single-handedly facilitated widespread acceptance of the then-new vaccine, but we found no evidence suggesting that Presley alone influenced Americans to receive polio vaccines. Researchers cite teen activism (such as canvassing and “Salk Hops“) as a possibly stronger factor, and medical literature indicated that widespread public fear of polio drove early high rates of vaccination. Moreover, teenagers targeted by the Elvis campaign were a small portion of the larger number of Americans getting vaccinated — a larger number were adults and parents choosing the vaccine for their children, who were perhaps more likely to listen to doctors than “the King.”

As such, we rate the claim Mixed. Elvis did receive a vaccination on television in 1956. Polio vaccination rates were high in later years, and Presley is often cited as raising rates from .6 percent to 80 percent almost singlehandedly. That statistic seemed unsubstantiated, and appears to reference broader vaccination rates (versus those specifically credited to Elvis Presley’s influence.) Research, advocacy, public health efforts, and a near-universal fear of polio played a significant role as well — and the role of teenagers advocating for their own health cannot be denied.

Article Sources +