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Health officials hoping “Elvis Effect” will encourage Mid-Southerners to take vaccine

Updated: Dec. 17, 2020 at 10:35 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The King of Rock and Roll could help America beat COVID-19. Elvis Presley helped the U.S. wipe out another deadly disease decades ago. So WMC Action News 5 paid a visit to Graceland to find out more.

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Polio, once one of the most feared diseases in the U.S., causes paralysis and deformities, and it can be deadly. It’s been around for thousands of years, primarily affecting children. When a polio vaccine was finally discovered in 1950, people were hesitant to take it, until a young man from Memphis stepped up to the mic.

Inside the vault at Graceland, Angie Marchese, the VP of archives, shared how Elvis helped America defeat polio. She showed WMC pictures of Elvis getting a shot in the arm, a blue receipt acknowledging 4 tickets to New York, and another piece of paper that recorded the amount of spending money Elvis took on his trip to NYC: $155.

“Obviously they chose Elvis to hit a specific demographic,” she said of the health experts who planned the polio p.r. campaign for Elvis, who a few months earlier had shot to sudden fame. “Elvis was that big!” Marchese said.

On Oct. 28, 1956, Elvis went on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York. Before his performance, Americans watched Elvis get the polio vaccine on television.

“Two health directors from New York,” Marchese said, “came to the Ed Sullivan studio and gave him the shot backstage.”

The target audience: teens and young adults who thought they weren’t at risk for the deadly disease.

“The pictures of Elvis getting the vaccine were seen in newspapers around the country the next day,” Marchese told WMC Action News 5, “And the percentage of teens that actually got the polio vaccine after this promotion went from .6-percent to almost 80-percent in six months.”

Elvis was heavily involved with the March of Dimes, according to Marchese, so he didn’t think twice about getting the vaccine. But today’s medical experts will need more than one rock star to beat the coronavirus. It will likely take an entire band, following the example set by the King of Rock and Roll, to convince the public to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

“He very much showed support for that charity and had no problems doing this publicity shot actually receiving the polio vaccination,” Marchese said, “he was passionate about this.”

The Americas were declared polio-free in the early 1990′s.

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