Dr Hannah Elizabeth, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
‘Injections ‘while you dance’’, announced the slightly bizarre Manchester Guardian headline from April 8th 1959. At first conjuring an outlandish image of dancers being pricked with needles as they boogied, the short article actually described ongoing attempts by health authorities across Britain to ensure polio immunisation reached the under 25s. In triumphant tones it explained that ‘medical teams’ would be visiting ‘factories’ and that ‘youth and dance halls’ were being approached ‘with a view to sending teams to give injections to young people.’ It noted ‘clubs and halls’ dance records will be interrupted for propaganda announcements’, that ‘members of Manchester United’s senior and reserve teams were given injections at the ground yesterday’ and that ‘mobile’ clinics were being made available ‘to any firms where there was a sufficient number of young people’. Why were these attempts to increase polio immunisations among the under 25s newsworthy? Why were the under 25s such a problem audience? Why were Saturday clinics and mobile clinics being paid for in Manchester? Were under 25s suddenly at greater risk of polio? These are questions I’ve been looking into with Gareth Millward and Alex Mold, and which we’ve written about in our recent article for Cultural & Social History.
Just 4 days before the publication of this article, footballer Jeff Hall, England international and Birmingham City right back, had died from polio. Aged 29, he collapsed after playing a match at Portsmouth on 21 March. That a seemingly fit healthy young man could be struck by a disease associated with childhood, shocked the nation. Across the country, young people presented themselves en masse for polio vaccination. So great was the sudden rise in demand that some districts ran out of the vaccine, shortages becoming as newsworthy as Jeff Hall’s untimely death.
Health authorities were delighted that so many young people wanted to be vaccinated. They seized upon the opportunity to promote vaccination to a previously problem demographic – 15 to 26 year olds. But the authorities were also somewhat frustrated that the young people now seeking vaccination had not registered for the scheme when they were originally encouraged to. If they had, the limited supplies of vaccine could have been distributed much more evenly, avoiding shortages and the bad press which went with them.
So why didn’t young people register to be vaccinated against polio when they were first asked? The reasons are myriad. Hitherto, immunisation had been offered to children via parents or specific adults placed at risk through employment; essentially captive audiences of potential vaccinators. Parents were entreated to vaccinate by appealing to their moral obligation to both their children’s health, and the health of the nation’s citizenry as a whole. At first this took the form of dire warnings about the threat polio posed to children, and reassurances that the vaccine was both safe and available. Later posters championed the success of the government’s polio vaccination programme so far, indicating safety and availability by reminding parents ‘nearly seven children have already been vaccinated’, then asking the emotionally laden question: ‘What about the others?’. Such tactics proved fairly persuasive with parents, but teenagers and young adults were a little trickier to reach.
With young adults, the target and the agent making the decision to seek vaccination were one and the same. But the 15-26 age group had not typically been the recipients of vaccination and, initially at least, young people were reluctant to present themselves. Probably because they felt that they were not at risk of polio, and did not see the reward of protection against the disease as worth the effort of registering for the vaccine. Registering took time, and might even be perceived as a pointless endeavour due to previous vaccine shortages which had limited the number of registered people actually being vaccinated, with older cohorts furthest down the list for jabs. Earlier bad press associated with the polio vaccine might also have influenced under-26s decision to register for the vaccination when it became available to them. Failed batches of the vaccine, and vaccine safety issues were well publicized alongside shortages in the early years of British polio vaccine roll out.
To persuade young people, the government sought to play on their emotions and to reach them where they worked and recreated. This involved more than adding the under-26s to polio posters and reassuring them that the vaccine was safe, and available – as they had when targeting parents. Vaccine drives and posters were placed in the spaces young people worked and played, and a new set of posters tailored to entice this cohort into registration was commissioned. New posters aimed at unattached under-26s were dominated by representations of youthful independence – dancing, working, and dating.
By associating vaccination spatially and figuratively with activities which demonstrated independence from the familial unit – work and dancing – posters conveyed the idea that like financial independence and the procurement of a date for a dance, vaccination registration was a marker of maturity and success. These innovative tactics eventually came to garner positive media interest, the story no longer entirely about supply issues and failed batches, but the unusual efforts of health authorities to stimulate (and then meet) rising demand amongst the youthful population, through ‘injections while you dance’.
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About the Author: Dr Hannah Elizabeth is a cultural historian who received a PhD in 2016 from the University of Manchester on the history of the representation of HIV to children and adolescents in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s, and is now a research assistant on the ‘Placing the Public in Public Health’ project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine looking into how the public’s emotions were imagined and how emotion figured in the success or failure of different health initiatives in post-war Britain. They are the co-author of ”Injections-While-You-Dance’: Press Advertisement and Poster Promotion of the Polio Vaccine to British Publics, 1956–1962′, Cultural & Social History, published online 29 March 2019.