Over the weekend, a Cleveland Clinic doctor’s anti-vaccine blog post sparked a social media furor, prompting the prestigious medical center to issue a statement reaffirming its trust in vaccines.
In an op-ed on Cleveland.com, entitled "Make 2017 the year to avoid toxins (good luck) and master your domain," Dr. Daniel Neides, the medical director and chief operating officer of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, questioned whether vaccines have contributed to a rise in neurological diseases like autism and ADHD and argued that ingredients in them are harmful to newborns.
"Does the vaccine burden — as has been debated for years — cause autism?" he wrote. "I don't know and will not debate that here. What I will stand up and scream is that newborns without intact immune systems and detoxification systems are being over-burdened with preservative and adjuvants in the vaccines."
He also wrote: "Some of the vaccines have helped reduce the incidence of childhood communicable diseases, like meningitis and pneumonia. That is great news. But not at the expense of neurologic diseases like autism and ADHD increasing at alarming rates."
Neides suggested spreading out and delaying the shots in children to reduce kids’ exposure to the chemicals he claimed were toxic.
The response on social media from doctors and others in the scientific community to Neides's shockingly unfounded claims was swift and forceful.
The @ClevelandClinic is a disgrace. Vaccine & toxin fear mongering? Post-truth medicine https://t.co/ag4fBQtvSp @VinayPrasad82 @tarahaelle— Yoni Freedhoff, MD (@YoniFreedhoff) January 7, 2017
Bad scene: @ClevelandClinic official promoting dangerous and unfounded anti-vaccine views to public https://t.co/2TUP7dJF9r— Brendan Nyhan (@BrendanNyhan) January 7, 2017
.@ClevelandClinic: "We are NOT anti-vaccine! Also, energy healing can help detoxify your pet's vibrational frequency." https://t.co/hnH8pTZDjg— Alan Levinovitz (@AlanLevinovitz) January 8, 2017
Large-scale studies involving thousands of participants in several countries have failed to establish a link between childhood vaccinations and autism. And there’s just no good evidence for the "too many, too soon" argument Neides makes. Babies’ immune systems are strong enough to tolerate the shots, and researchers haven’t found evidence for an association between the number of vaccines kids get in the first two years of life and neuropsychological outcomes later on.
Delaying and refusing vaccines, however, can increase a child’s risk of disease as well as vaccine-preventable outbreaks. (You can read a detailed debunking of Neides by Tara Haelle over at Forbes, as well as my own reporting on the pseudoscience of the vaccine-autism link.)
The Cleveland Clinic responded last night, distancing itself from the doctor, and Neides’s blog has since been removed from the news site.
We fully support vaccines to protect patients & employees. Statements made by our physician do not reflect the position of Cleveland Clinic.— Cleveland Clinic (@ClevelandClinic) January 8, 2017
The medical profession’s anti-vaccine problem is bigger than this one incident
The Cleveland Clinic, a top research hospital, now has a credibility problem on its hands. But it's not the only one: There are rogue anti-vaccine factions throughout medicine, who regularly muddy the public health conversation about immunizations.
When I was reporting on "vaccine delayers" — or parents who, as Neides suggested, choose to spread out or selectively vaccinate their kids — I learned that their guidebook is the innocuously titled Vaccine Book, written by Bob Sears, a pediatrician from Southern California.
"Vaccination isn't an all-or-nothing decision," Sears writes, in the number-one bestselling children's health book. Some vaccine-preventable diseases aren't all that bad, he argues, and it's not clear why people still inoculate their kids for scourges like polio, a crippling disease that's no longer common in the US. So Sears — also known as "Dr. Bob" — suggests spreading out the shots, and even skipping those parents find unpalatable.
The Cleveland Clinic also employs Dr. Mark Hyman, another peddler of the debunked idea that vaccines cause autism, among other pseudoscience malarkey.
Let’s not forget Dr. Mehmet Oz, a board-certified surgeon and faculty member at Columbia University, who is now almost as famous for his magical thinking about medicine as he is for his Emmy Award-winning TV show. (He’s given a platform to other doctors with anti-vaccine sentiments, such as Joe Mercola.)
The medical profession has been struggling with how to deal with dangerous doctor talk, since doctors can pretty much say anything and keep their medical licenses (outside of the doctor-patient context). But with a president-elect coming into the White House who has also shared anti-vaccine rhetoric, the medical profession better think about how to deal with its rogue members, and get better at spreading the message about why we desperately need vaccines.