By Sarah Eilers
It’s August. Students are facing summer’s end and the start of another school year. Parents are scrambling to arrange physical and dental checkups, and pediatricians’ offices are deluged with immunization forms.
The National Library of Medicine (NLM) has nearly 200 cataloged films about vaccination and immunization. One recent acquisition features a pigtailed girl called Emmy Immunity. Emmy appears in a series of animated Public Service Announcements (PSAs) produced in 1964 by the South Carolina State Board of Health and the U.S. Public Health Service. She sings her advice at the end of each segment: “Keep your family safe, every age and size, protection can be yours when you immunize.”
In the Eighty-Sixth Annual Report of the State Board of Health of South Carolina, covering July 1, 1964 through June 30, 1965 when these films were produced, the Board reported that it had conducted a widespread public information campaign about the necessity of immunization. Printed material was a mainstay of the campaign—posters, bus ads, and the like—but the board was concerned also with those who could not read. So material was prepared for broadcast by the state’s 11 television stations and 93 radio stations, informing the population of immunization activities across South Carolina. For even harder-to-reach groups, “a special set of animated film TV spots was produced to entertain as well as to educate this particularly difficult group.” Emmy Immunity appears to have been part of this set, which was adopted by the U.S. Public Health Service and provided to 72 Vaccination Assistance Projects across all 50 states.
Emmy Immunity, 1964
The PSAs convey their message via “four dangerous characters”—ill-intentioned green cartoon figures representing infectious diseases. Locky Lockjaw, Dippy Diphtheria, Roly Polio, and Whoopy Whooping Cough all search for susceptible individuals to infect, but are thwarted by the protection afforded their intended victims by immunization.
In one segment, Dippy Diphtheria flies above a school bus packed with children, cackling, “Since I’m an infectious character, I think I’ll find me a group to mingle with.” She swoops in, but is repelled by the shield of immunization that materializes.
Roly Polio is perhaps the most sinister character in the set. He sits in his wheelchair on a dais, the other three disease characters on a bench facing him, and declares:
I’m Roly Polio, leader of this clan,
To destroy good health is our dirty plan!
There’s Locky Lockjaw, he’s my strong right arm.
There’s Whoopy Whooping Cough, he will do you harm.
And here is Dippy Diphtheria, she really is a pal.
To all of us diseases, she’s our pinup gal!
Roly’s attempted attack on a child in his playroom at home is aggressive. He rolls his wheelchair at top speed toward the front door of the snug home, wielding his crutch like a weapon. Splintering the front door, he rolls into the playroom and threatens the young child—but the immunization shield appears and Roly retreats.
In the last PSA on NLM’s film, the four dangerous characters gather for an all-out assault on a family with a new baby not yet vaccinated, and other members not current on their boosters. The family has chosen that very day to see the doctor, and when the four launch their attack, immunization shields pop up all over the house and lawn.
While these four diseases, tetanus, polio, diphtheria and whooping cough, are rare now, particularly in developed nations, for centuries they sickened, crippled, and killed hundreds of thousands. Between 1937 and 1950, there were more than 226,000 cases of polio in the U.S. By 1979, the disease had been eradicated. Globally, just three countries are affected today: Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Diphtheria was once known as “the plague among children,” according to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s online History of Vaccines. Its most notable feature is the formation of a thick gray substance called a pseudomembrane over the nasal tissues, tonsils, larynx, and/or pharynx, leading to breathing difficulties and even suffocation. The Living Factories section of NLM’s 2014 exhibition From DNA to Beer contains historical images and documents about diphtheria and the making of its antitoxin.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is one disease that is reemerging after decades of suppression. During 2012, 48,277 cases of pertussis were reported, including 20 related deaths. This was the highest number of reported cases since 1955. In a set of FAQs about pertussis, the CDC notes that the disease is naturally cyclic; peaks and dips are to be expected. But our waning immunity may be related to the switch in the 1990s from a whole cell vaccine (DTP) to an acellular one (DTaP) that does not protect people for as long, but was thought to be safer.
Emmy’s message remains an important one: “Protection can be yours when you immunize.”
To watch more films like Emmy Immunity from the National Library of Medicine’s Historical Audiovisuals collection, visit NLM’s Digital Collections.