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El Paso woman who helped convince Elvis to take Polio vaccine discusses parallels with Covid-19 shot

Elvis Presley gets Polio shot
KVIA/El Paso Inc.
Autographed photo shows Elvis Presley getting a Polio vaccine shot.
Elvis Presley getting a Polio vaccine shot.

EL PASO, Texas (KVIA) -- Finding a Covid-19 vaccine was the first challenge. As vaccine misinformation and fear spreads worldwide, getting the public to agree to take it will be the next. It's a battle that U.S. health departments have faced before, and one that one El Paso woman knows all too well.

It was the 1950's and polio was killing thousands of children in the United States. More were left paralyzed. Ruth Taber was working with New York City's Health Department at the time.

"It was a very emotional disease," she said. "In terms of frequency, it wasn't that much of a disease. But when it did strike, it struck at the heart of everything."

Getting the public to take the life-saving vaccine to end the outbreaks was an uphill battle, especially after a defective vaccine paralyzed 200 children and killed 10 others.

"We were sitting around talking one day, and my boss, who was the health commissioner said, 'You know, how do we get those teenagers off their rear ends to get a shot?" Taber said. "I said, 'Well, you have to appeal to something."

Superstar Elvis Presley came to mind. Taber made the call to his manager.

"I was sitting around thinking, 'Who do teenagers like?' I'm reading about their fan clubs all over the United States and they go crazy for Elvis," Taber said. "My attitude was, 'What have I got to lose?'"

"I never talked so fast in my life because I was afraid he would hang up on me," she said. "I said, 'Okay, he'll never call back.' It didn't take ten minutes."

In October of 1956, Presley got his polio vaccine in New York on camera.

"When the day came and we went down to the CBS studios and I saw you could barely get into the building, I realized this was pretty big," Taber said. "The coverage was not only all over the United States, but it was all over the world."

Presley was not Taber's only tool to spread the word. She sent medical professionals on children's television shows to raise awareness too.

By the 1960's, there were less than 100 cases in the U.S. per year.

Decades later, Taber sees similar vaccine roadblocks during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"There were people afraid of vaccinations, but not the way they are now," Taber said.

Health experts nationwide are finding their own ways to fight fear and misinformation.

"If you are high-risk for severe Covid, getting the vaccine is your best option," said Dr. Armando Meza, Chief of Infectious Diseases at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso. "There is no comparison to getting sick."

For many, their concern lies in the speed at which the vaccine was developed.

Dr. Meza said the same trials have been done for the coronavirus vaccine as any other vaccine for other diseases. However for the COVID vaccine, those trials were done at the same time.

Others are concerned about the possibility of long-term side effects.

"There's been a lot of studies that show that when you provide a vaccine, any significant side effect is going to occur within the first two months," Dr. Meza said. He said two-month data for the vaccine has been studied significantly already.

While the science is key to fighting the fear, Taber's story shows the packaging is just as important.

"My attitude was try it," she said. "What have I got to lose? It didn't cost me anything to try."

Article Topic Follows: El Paso

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Madeline Ottilie

Madeline Ottilie is a reporter on Good Morning El Paso and co-anchors ABC-7 at noon.


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