Recently, the beloved Sesame Street character Big Bird went on television and social media to promote COVID-19 vaccines. For anyone who has been conscious for at least a few years, celebrities—especially ones with larger fanbases amongst the youth of the country—promoting public health initiatives is not surprising. It has been going on forever and ever.
The Republican Party, pretending everything that is happening at all times has never happened before and will lead to communism, decided it was time to attack the bleeding heart liberal Big Bird for trying to “indoctrinate” children with good public health policy.
Led by Sen. Ted Cruz—who has never met a low he could not find his way below—the anti-vaccine, anti-democracy crowd stirred up as much dirt as they could in order to continue their obfuscation of the very simple facts: The Republican Party has no solutions to any of America’s problems. The backwardness of the pretend “culture war” the GOP has fostered in their blustering about Dr. Seuss and critical race theory—whatever they think that is—is nowhere more apparent than in these attacks. Before Big Bird found herself in the middle of a political discourse below the grade level Big Bird speaks to, there were people like famed conservative entertainer Elvis Presley, who promoted young people going out to get the “jab.”
In 1956, Presley was about to become the super famous icon we have all come to know. He had a couple of No. 1 hits, a movie soon to be released, and television appearances booked. Before he was set to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, Presley went in front of the cameras with Sullivan present for those very same cameras in order to take a photo of himself being administered a polio vaccine shot by a New York state official. That is what the photo above this story memorializes.
The reason Presley did this was that health officials and his management thought his rising stardom and appeal to young folks would help drive up the “abysmal 0.6 percent” polio vaccination rate of American teens. In those teens’ defense, they had some reasons for hesitancy. Walter Winchell, the broadcasting giant of the day, famously told the public on his radio show: “Attention everyone. In a few moments, I will report on a new polio vaccine claimed to be a polio cure. It may be a killer.” This was during the human testing phase of the vaccine in 1954.
So when the vaccine first became available to the American public in 1955, there was a lot of hesitation. Even though polio had disabled “an average of more than 35,000 people each year” since the 1940s, and “approximately 60,000 children were infected annually,” the vaccination numbers remained low. In the six months after Presley’s very well-publicized polio photo op, the rate of vaccinations among teens in the U.S. soared to 80%.
A reminder: The worst year of polio claimed the lives of 3,000 Americans. At the beginning of October 2021, the U.S. was reporting over 2,000 deaths from COVID-19 a day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that since 1979, “no cases of polio have originated in the U.S.”
Reprinted with permission of Daily Kos.