On Friday afternoon, a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic, the large academic hospital in Ohio, unleashed a salvo of pointed words toward vaccines. The source of Daniel Neides’ vitriol was a flu shot that left him feeling unwell. The physician was particularly incensed, as he wrote in a column at Cleveland.com, because although the vaccine was billed as preservative-free it contained the compound formaldehyde. He insinuated that the organic compound was the cause of a 48-hour malaise that kept him in bed and out of the office.
His column caught social media fire. Much of the attention was negative, as Stat News and others noted. Several of the physician’s peers publicly took the article to task. “Vaccine & toxin fear mongering? Post-truth medicine,” tweeted University of Ottawa family medicine professor Yoni Freedhoff.
“Wow, this quack is the head of an institute of an actual medical center?” added Vinay Prasad, an Oregon Health and Sciences University oncologist. The Cleveland Clinic is not just any medical center. It is renowned, particularly in the field of cardiac medicine.
By Saturday night, the Cleveland Clinic had distanced itself from the column. “We fully support vaccines to protect patients & employees,” read a post on the hospital’s Twitter account. “Statements made by our physician do not reflect the position of Cleveland Clinic.”
And in a statement later communicated via hospital representative to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Neides offered an apology. “I apologize and regret publishing a blog that has caused so much concern and confusion for the public and medical community,” he said. “I fully support vaccinations and my concern was meant to be positive around the safety of them.”
It is true that certain flu vaccines contain formaldehyde. The compound inactivates viruses, so that the microbes contained within a vaccine cannot cause illness. (It is not used as a preservative in vaccines.) To Neides, formaldehyde in vaccines represented another “toxic burden” on the populace. The compound is a “known carcinogen,” he wrote. “Yet, here we are, being lined up like cattle and injected with an unsafe product.” (The National Toxicology Program considers formaldehyde to be a cancer-causing agent, although the increased cancer risk is linked to long-term exposure as seen among industrial workers who may, for instance, inhale formaldehyde vapor.)
But any formaldehyde injected in a vaccine along with the inactivated viruses exists in trivial amounts: Healthy human blood, for instance, already contains formaldehyde at levels 100 times greater than the amount delivered into the bloodstream after a vaccination, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Without formaldehyde, our cells would not be able to create nucleic acids or vital proteins.
Neides is the director of the hospital’s Wellness Institute, which promotes healthy lifestyles through “world-class medical care and quality wellness programs;” the Institute’s website advertises homeopathic detox remedies and a gluten-free Florida retreat. It is under the umbrella of the larger Cleveland Clinic.
An immense organization, the hospital operates a multi-specialty campus in Ohio and several medical centers around the globe. The hospital is well-known for robotic innovation, too, in addition to its cardiac care. In 2015, the clinic had more than 6.6 million patient visits and revenue of $7.2 billion.
After becoming the director of the Wellness Institute, Neides secured a long-running monthly column at Cleveland.com. He published more than two dozen articles for the website since January 2014. And no one at the website edited or approved a particular article, according to Chris Quinn, a Cleveland.com vice president.
“Possibly, before the thing caught widescale attention, we would have unpublished it and sought revisions,” Quinn wrote on Monday. “That’s hindsight, though, so I can’t say for sure.” (The only editorial note on the blog post itself indicates that the article was briefly removed before being restored.)
Neides, in addition to damning formaldehyde, raised the specter of the widely-debunked claim that there is a link between vaccine and autism. “Does the vaccine burden – as has been debated for years – cause autism?” the doctor wrote. “I don’t know and will not debate that here.” Still, Neides went on to write that the aluminum in vaccines “can be incredibly harmful to the developing nervous system.” He also said the medical benefits of vaccination should not come at the “expense of neurologic diseases like autism and ADHD increasing at alarming rates.”
The medical community at large does not frame the autism-vaccine claim as a debate. “There is no link between vaccines and autism,” wrote the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a 2015 statement. “Vaccine ingredients do not cause autism.”
Such an insinuation had its roots in a report, since retracted, published in the Lancet in 1998. The findings were resoundingly refuted in follow-up investigations, and the lead author lost his medical license in 2010. By 2011, editors at the British Medical Journal concluded the study authors committed fraud by cherry-picking subjects and falsifying data.
But the purported link, and the long shadow it cast over the public perception of vaccine safety, showed a pernicious tenacity. Green Party nominee for president Jill Stein expressed some ambiguity on the 2016 campaign trail. (“There were real questions that needed to be addressed,” she said in July.) President-elect Donald Trump was more forthright, and less correct, in a 2015 GOP debate about a “a beautiful child” who “got very, very sick, now is autistic” after a vaccination. Trump also tweeted in 2014 that, “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM.”
Disease outbreaks, such as a measles epidemic that originated with unvaccinated visitors to Disneyland in 2014, have health experts concerned about the fallout from anti-vaccine beliefs. A Baylor University scientist wrote in October in the journal PLOS One that he predicted that “measles outbreaks in Texas could happen as early as the winter or spring of 2018.”
Neides and the Cleveland Clinic staff are no longer able publish directly to Cleveland.com.