Jan 09 2017

Anti-vaccine Nonsense at Cleveland Clinic

This is what happens when you compromise your academic and professional integrity in order to embrace a popular fad. The Cleveland Clinic, which is historically an excellent medical institution, has the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Center, which is a center of so-called “alternative” medicine.

Such centers are a Trojan horse. They are sold to naïve academics as providing “patient centered” warm and fuzzy symptomatic treatments. Meanwhile they are really centers for pseudoscience and health fraud. They use the respected names of venerable institutions to legitimize nonsense.

The Cleveland Clinic now has to face the PR nightmare of allowing the foxes into the henhouse (actually they built a new henhouse just for the foxes).

On January 6th Dr. Daniel Neides, Medical Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, published an anti-vaccine screed on the institution’s blog. The article is full of typical anti-vaccine misinformation, and is a serious embarrassment to the Cleveland Clinic. It will also embolden the anti-vaccine movement, who can point to the article to make vaccines seem controversial and convince more confused parents not to vaccinate their children.

Let’s take a look at some of the terrible science in Neides article. He opens with an emotional appeal:

“I am tired of all the nonsense we as American citizens are being fed while big business – and the government – continue to ignore the health and well-being of the fine people in this country.”

Alternative medicine proponents have been successful in spreading their pseudoscience partly because they speak to both ends of the political spectrum. To the left they preach fear of big business. To the right they stoke fears of big government. You can see here how they comfortably embrace anti-corporate and anti-government paranoia at the same time.

He continues:

“I, like everyone else, took the advice of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) – the government – and received a flu shot. I chose to receive the preservative free vaccine, thinking I did not want any thimerasol (sic) (i.e. mercury) that the “regular” flu vaccine contains.”

Thimerosal is a preservative used in the manufacture of vaccines, and was used in some vaccines until around 2002 when it was removed because of unfounded public fears about its safety. What Neides does not tell his readers is that there are different forms of mercury, and the form in thimerosal (ethyl mercury) is the more benign form that is quickly removed from the body.

Also, toxicity is always about dose, and the dose contained in vaccines was tiny, and well below safety limits. Further, years of research have found no connection between thimerosal in vaccines and any adverse outcome.

As an aside, notice how subtly deceptive propaganda can be. He refers to the flu vaccines with thimerosal as the “regular” vaccine. What does that mean? Most flu vaccines do not contain thimerosal. None of the single dose or live virus vaccines do. Only the multi-dose vials contain thimerosal, because they need the longer shelf-life provided by the preservative.

It gets worse:

“However, what I did not realize is that the preservative-free vaccine contains formaldehyde.”

WHAT? How can you call it preservative-free, yet still put a preservative in it? And worse yet, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Yet, here we are, being lined up like cattle and injected with an unsafe product.”

He is implying that he, a medical director, was deceived. The flu-vaccines are not sold as “preservative free” but only as “thimerosal free.” He then states outright that these vaccines are unsafe because they contain a tiny amount of formaldehyde.

This is the toxin gambit – name scary sounding substances, and then say they have been linked to a scary disease. He leaves out any mention of the dose of formaldehyde one might get in a typical flu vaccine. In fact, it is negligible. One would famously get more formaldehyde from eating a pear. (That’s right, the Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Center has already been debunked by internet memes).

Our bodies make formaldehyde as a natural metabolic byproduct. We eat it in many foods. The extra small amount in vaccines is truly negligible, and does not represent any health risk.

He then goes full toxin gambit (you never go full toxin gambit):

“My anger actually stems from a constant toxic burden that is contributing to the chronic disease epidemic. And yet the government continues to talk out of both sides of its mouth. We want our citizens to be healthy and take full advantage of the best healthcare system in the world (so we think), yet we don’t treat our bodies with the love and attention they deserve.”

He goes into greater detail, but we have seen it all before. He fear-mongers about all the “chemicals” we are exposed to and how they are overwhelming our natural detoxification systems. This is all evidence-free pseudoscientific nonsense.

Of course we need to be careful before we introduce any new substances to the environment or to human exposure. We need to research their safety and determine safe levels of exposure – and we do. We actually have a very robust system designed to protect the public from unintended toxicity. It’s not perfect, no human institution is, but Neides is not proposing any concrete improvement to our current regulatory system. He is just stoking vague fears of the “chemakilz.”

He also repeats the myth that we are in the middle of an epidemic of chronic diseases, like cancer, autism, and autoimmune diseases. The risk of developing these diseases has not been increasing. Their incidence has, mainly for two reasons – we have an aging population (applies mainly to cancer), and we have an increased ability to diagnose such illnesses. Obesity and the diseases for which it is a risk factor have been increasing, but this is demonstrably due to behavioral changes.

Autism in particular has clearly been shown to be increasing due to increased surveillance, a broadening of the definition of autism, and diagnostic substitution. Neides claims that autism and ADHD are increasing “at alarming rates” without putting what he means by “increasing” into a proper scientific context.

Neides apparently does not want to come right out and say vaccines cause autism, so instead he strongly implies it:

“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 falsely makes it seem like there is some controversy here. There isn’t. There is no link between vaccines and autism. He should know the answer, if he were a competent doctor. Any properly trained medical professional who is not blinkered by ideology should be able to read the literature and understand that it shows quite definitively that vaccines do not cause autism.

He then gives his version of “too many, too soon.” Again, this is an evidence-free fearmongering assertion.

He finishes with the most astounding paragraph of his screed:

“In a 2015 article in U.S. News and World Report, Jessica Hutchins, M.D., IFM certified practitioner, states, “Information on eating toxin-free food and pushing food manufacturers to stop using harmful ingredients can be found at foodbabe.com. When we vote with our dollars by choosing to buy products that are sustainably produced and chemical-free, we actively shape the market place. Help change the way [loved ones] nourish their precious bodies, starting with yourself as an example.”

Wow – the Foodbabe. The Cleveland Clinic has appointed as a medical director of one of its centers someone who approvingly cites the Foodbabe as a reference. He wants us to use products that are “chemical-free.” Good luck with that.


The Cleveland Clinic should be mortified at this public exposure of their horrible decision-making when it comes to so-called alternative medicine. This is why it is important to consistently maintain high standards of science, intellectual honesty, and academic rigor in medicine.

The academic institutions of medicine are supposed to set the standard. When they cave to popular fads, they are failing their primary responsibility.

In my experience, most academics are just not paying attention. They don’t realize that alternative medicine is just the slick marketing of pseudoscientific health fraud. They just defer to “experts,” who are the people promoting it.

I don’t know if this episode will be a wake up call, or if they will think it is just an aberration, an isolated event. It isn’t. This is precisely what they signed up for with their Wellness Center. They should simply learn their lesson and shut it down, or transform it entirely into a science-based center (and no, there is no such thing as science-based alternative medicine, by definition).

Of note, in response to criticism the Cleveland Clinic took down the post over the weekend. That does not mean the episode will prompt any real soul-searching. It just means they are doing damage control. Also, it now seems that the blog is back up. I’d love to know the thought process there.

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