Vaccines

Doctor's anti-vaccine claims ignite PR firestorm for Cleveland Clinic

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A doctor at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic sparked an online uproar when he published an article Friday filled with anti-vaccine rhetoric, including the widely debunked claim that vaccines are linked to autism. Physicians took to Twitter to call the article “vile” and “Post-truth medicine” and demand whether the clinic endorsed its doctor’s views.

Dr. Daniel Neides, a family doctor and the director and chief operating officer of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, wrote on a blog on the news site cleveland.com that preservatives and other ingredients in vaccines are dangerous and are likely behind the increase in diagnosed cases of neurological diseases such as autism — a claim that has long been discredited by researchers.

“Does the vaccine burden — as has been debated for years — cause autism? 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 PRESERVATIVES AND ADJUVANTS IN THE VACCINES,” he wrote. Adjuvants are added to vaccines to prompt a stronger immune response.

“Some of the vaccines have helped reduce the incidence of childhood communicable diseases, like meningitis and pneumonia,” he continued. “That is great news. But not at the expense of neurologic diseases like autism and ADHD increasing at alarming rates.”

Neides’s wellness institute provides “world-class medical care and quality wellness programs to change unhealthy behaviors and to make healthy life choices,” according to its website. But to the wider medical community, the claims that Neides espoused did not promote “healthy life choices.” Instead, they said these statements were downright dangerous.

Dr. Vinay Prasad, a hematologist-oncologist at the Oregon Health and Sciences University, expressed disbelief on Twitter:

In an email to STAT, Prasad added, “That article … contains many of the tired, unsupported, irrational concerns about pediatric vaccines, as well as generally unsupported thoughts on ‘toxin’ exposure. Frankly, it is a little surprising it is written by a doctor, and not someone on the fringe, who lacks basic science and medical training.”

Dr. Jeffrey Matthews, chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Surgery, tweeted:

Scientists and doctors were horrified about the misinformation contained in the article, especially given that the source is affiliated with a such a prestigious medical institution. A spokesperson for Cleveland Clinic told STAT on Saturday that Neides “will not be doing an interview.”

“He wrote this opinion piece on his own and it does not reflect the position of the Cleveland Clinic whatsoever, and we strongly support vaccinations and the protection of patients and employees,” said Eileen Sheil, executive director of corporate communications for the medical center.

Many doctors saw the post as an embarrassment for the Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Benjamin Mazer, a resident physician in pathology at Yale New Haven Hospital who tweeted that the article was “one of the most vile, false things I have ever read by a doctor,” said in an interview that it wasn’t an isolated event.

“This is really part of a larger movement that distrusts mainstream medicine, distrusts mainstream public health, and really trades in conspiracy theories,” he told STAT. “This article is a really prime example of that. It’s just a shame that it’s a physician spreading these conspiracy theories because people naturally trust physicians.”

He was especially appalled at the misinformation that Neides was spreading about hepatitis B vaccines, which, Mazer said, “have prevented thousands of deaths.”

Non-clinicians were just as worried.

“When I see opinion pieces that stoke fears about the truly minuscule amounts of formaldehyde (a naturally occurring metabolite in every one of us) in vaccines or suggest that there is still some ‘debate’ as to whether or not vaccines and autism are linked, it sets off alarm bells and huge red flags in my head,” Michael Wosnick, the former scientific director of the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, told STAT by email.