All Shook Up About Vaccines

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On October 28, 1956, Elvis Presley (above) appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, the most-watched television program in America. Backstage, a camera crew filmed a doctor and nurse administered the polio vaccine to the young, dashing musician as part of a public service campaign to encourage Americans of all ages to get their shot. The American virologist, Jonas Edward Salk, developed the first polio vaccine. In no time at all, America saw the number of cases of polio drop remarkably. Years later, a global campaign attempted to eradicate polio entirely. Before its eradication, polio affected millions around the world. In 1988, when the World Health Organization (WHO) and other entities began the Global Polio Eradication program, an estimated 350,000 people a year contracted the paralytic disease. (By comparison, the United States lost almost as many citizens to Covid-19 in the first nine months of the pandemic) A dozen years later, only about 700 cases were reported worldwide. 

Polio (poliomyelitis) is a paralytic illness that can include fever, ascending paralysis, and bladder and bowel dysfunction, among other symptoms. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (below) contracted polio in 1921. He was paralyzed from the waist down.

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Smallpox was another disease that affected millions worldwide. In a similar campaign, the WHO and other agencies launched a global smallpox eradication program. The last known naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed in October of 1977, two months after Elvis Presley died. In 1980, the WHO declared that smallpox had been eradicated solely through vaccinations. Clearly, vaccinations work.

JS Vaccines3I remember in 1970, when all across America schoolchildren were made to stand in long lines in the gym to receive their measles vaccine. I was in first grade. I can still recall how I felt as I moved up in line closer to the white curtain behind which I would be given my shot. I remember kids coming out from behind the curtain holding a cotton ball over their injection site, tears running down their cheeks. I remember I wanted to be brave, but my feet wanted me to run.

Following Elvis’s example, three former-presidents—Barack Obama, George Bush, and Bill Clinton (below)—will make public their Covid-19 vaccinations to show viewers that they got their shots in order to help encourage vaccinations nationwide and to show their trust in the vaccine. Just today, Vice President Pence and President-Elect Joe Biden announced that they will do the same.

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Hopefully, by their examples, and by the examples of others to follow, a page has turned in American history. Perhaps we will win this war on a common enemy. In time, we will all get vaccinated because we care about our family, friends, the elderly, and our fellow citizens. Compassion for the health and well-being of others will win the day.


JSDr. John Smelcer is the Inaugural Writer-in-Residence for the Charter for Compassion where he teaches a global online course called “Poetry for Inspiration and Well-Being.” He was a hospital administrator, directing, among other things, the Department of Health Education. He is the author of over 60 books, including a book about the 1918 Spanish Flu and its impact on Alaska Natives. His book, A New Day, is a pocketbook of meditations to inspire love, compassion, hope, mercy, charity, tolerance, contemplation, and peace. He is currently working on a book about his discovery of Thomas Merton’s relics in the spring of 2015.

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