This post has been updated.
It’s never a good sign when my phone starts buzzing as I crawl into bed at 9:30 on a Saturday night. Yes, I go to bed at 9:30pm on Saturdays. I’m a parent, sleep is awesome. The buzzes had to do with a recent article written by a physician associated with Cleveland Clinic about vaccines and “toxic overload”. ‘This, again?’ I thought. Yes, this again.
We have a rule on this site that we don’t provide links to bad information, even if we’re debunking it. This time, I’m going to bend the rules and provide a link to the article in question, because I’m actually going to talk about some other things the doctor has written. So if you’d like to read it, here it is.
There has been a lot of confusion about whether the prestigious Cleveland Clinic actually endorsed the article because its logo appears on the top left hand corner of the post. To be clear, the article does not appear on the institute’s website. Instead, it was posted as a monthly column Dr. Daniel Neides writes for the Lyndhurst & South Euclid community blog, a neighborhood blog offered by Cleveland.com. The use of Cleveland Clinic’s logo on the blog gives the impression that the post is written in association with the health system, or has at least received its blessing. So, did it?
I reached out to Eileen Sheil, a spokesperson for Cleveland Clinic, “Our physician published his statement without authorization from Cleveland Clinic. His views do not reflect the position of Cleveland Clinic and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken”. In a previous statement Sheil clarified that they did not give Cleveland.com permission to use their logo on this specific post or the monthly column that Dr. Neides writes.
But what about Dr. Neides’ role in Cleveland Clinic? Some have claimed that Dr. Neides’ is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Cleveland Clinic. Sheil clarified this issue for us as well, “[Dr. Neides] is a primary care physician in [our] Wellness Institute. He does not have a [leadership] role in the larger Cleveland Clinic enterprise.”
Sheil also reaffirmed that Dr. Neides’ did not speak for the health system and his post did not signal a position change for the organization on vaccines. Sheil says, “Cleveland Clinic is fully committed to evidence-based medicine. Harmful myths and untruths about vaccinations have been scientifically debunked in rigorous ways. We completely support vaccinations to protect people, especially children who are particularly vulnerable.”
Further, Dr. Neides seems to have backed off the claims he originally made in the post. In a statement he said, “I apologize and regret publishing a blog that has caused so much concern and confusion for the public and medical community. I fully support vaccinations and my concern was meant to be positive around the safety of them.”
That last point is particularly pertinent as Dr. Neides’ position in this most recent post contradicts a similar post he made two years ago where he not only recounted his own harrowing experience with complications from Influenza type A, but also encouraged everyone who can be vaccinated to get their flu shot. It’s clear that Dr. Neides’ post was emotional, but it’s a little odd that he would hold two contradictory positions on the same vaccine in such a short period of time.
So, Dr. Neides isn’t in a leadership position at Cleveland Clinic and the post doesn’t constitute a change in the health system’s position on vaccines and vaccine safety. But is any of what Dr. Neides actually says in the post true?
I studied vaccine safety and vaccine safety communication in graduate school, so whenever a reader has a question about vaccines, or vaccines are in the news, I’m usually the one to address the issue on the site. In this case, though, I don’t think I should be the one to address the issues raised in Dr. Neides’ post. I think we need to hear from a variety of scientists and physicians that study the areas that Dr. Neides’ post touched on. I’m going to let these experts, who are (like me) also parents speak to the accuracy of his claims. In this post you will hear from two pediatric immunologists, a toxicologist, a chemist and a pediatrician.
To address Dr. Neides’ claims about the ethylmercury and formaldehyde content of the flu vaccine we’re going to start at, where else, Cleveland Clinic with Dr. Brian Schroer, a pediatric allergist and immunologist and father of two boys.
Dr. Schroer: “The ‘mercury’ frequently referred to in vaccines is known by its trade name Thimerosal. Thimerosol is not mercury as we commonly know it. Thimerosal has different metabolism and potential for side effects than mercury. It does not cause mercury poisoning the way inorganic mercury would. It is very clear that vaccines do not cause autism. Thimerosal is used in multi use vials of influenza vaccine and other vaccines as a preservative to prevent microbes from contaminating the vaccines. Thimerosal was removed from all childhood vaccines out of an abundance of caution in 2001. It remains an important safe and effective preservative for adult vaccines that are used all over the world to prevent severe illness and death from vaccine preventable diseases.”
But what about the formaldehyde? Formaldehyde is used in vaccines, such as the inactivated influenza vaccine (flu shot) as a way of “inactivating” the virus that is in the vaccine. It is safe and effective at preventing the flu shot from actually giving you the flu. In the article, Dr. Neides heavily implies that he caught the flu from the flu shot.
Dr. Schroer: “The influenza vaccine does not cause the flu or flu like symptoms of coughing up phlegm or sinus production of thick yellow green mucous following the flu. It just happens to be given during a time of year (Fall) when hundreds of other viruses are going around. Because of this timing it is common for people who receive the influenza vaccine to develop a typical cold soon after. It is a correlation only, and the illness is not caused by the flu vaccine.”
This sentiment is echoed by Dr. David Fischer, an immunologist and adjunct professor at the University of Western Ontario. “Any influenza vaccine contains the surface antigens of the influenza virus that is being targeted but without containing anything that can literally infect you. I get my flu shot yearly as I deal with immunocompromised patients and I cannot afford to contribute to their illness. There can be a brief feeling of tiredness and muscle aches as you mount an immune response to those antigens but that’s it. It’s also given at a time of year when other viruses are prevalent so there can be coincidental viral symptoms. I feel it a small price to pay to avoid the real flu.”
The biggest claim that Dr. Neides makes is about the toxicity of ethylmercury and formaldehyde in the flu vaccine. He claims the two substances accumulate in the body’s fat and add to a “toxin overload” in the body. To address that claim, I spoke with Marie Bourgeois, Ph.D., a mother and toxicologist with the University of South Florida.
Bourgeois: “A toxin is a chemical produced by an animal or plant that may be harmful in the right dose. While ethylmercury and formaldehyde are toxic in the right dose, a newborn baby has 50-70 times more formaldehyde in their body than they will ever be exposed to through vaccines over their lifetime. It’s a chemical that our body naturally produces. Pears, bananas and apples all naturally contain formaldehyde as well.”
This is a sentiment that’s echoed by Michelle M. Francl, professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr college. “Chemists and physicians have known for at least 500 years that the “dose makes the poison,” the idea that everything we come in contact with has the potential to cause harm if you take too much. Water, coffee, all are dangerous in large doses. One way to figure out if something is likely to be harmful to people is to see whether the human body already contains it, and at what concentration.”
But what about the claim that formaldehyde and ethylmercury bioaccumulate in our fat cells creating a “toxic soup” in our bodies?
Bourgeois: “Very little that we are exposed to stays in the body forever, and ethylmercury is bioprocessed out of our bodies one to two weeks after it’s introduced. Formaldehyde, is water soluble, which means that it’s bioprocessed out of your body even quicker than ethylmercury. Because formaldehyde is water soluble there is very limited bioaccumulation potential because your body knows what to do with hydrophilic substances. If we retained all of the toxins we took in, we wouldn’t live for very long.”
Francl agrees adding a helpful rule of thumb that chemists use, “we say in chemistry that ‘like dissolves like,’ meaning that things that share chemical properties tend to dissolve in each other, and unlike things don’t mix well — like oil and water. Some compounds we eat are fat soluble, like Vitamin A and its relatives. It’s why when you eat too many carrots, your skin will turn orange. Others are water soluble, like Vitamin C, as they easily dissolve in blood, your body quickly dispose of any excess. The liver is the key “filter” for the body, but fat soluble things generally take longer to eliminate as not much of them can be dissolved in the blood and carried to the liver for dismantling and disposal.”
Francl also adds there’s a bit of an easy way for parents (Francl is a mother as well) to tell if a medicine is water soluble and thus easily bioprocessed by the liver and kidneys (and not stored in fat cells). “A good rule of thumb is that if you are drinking a clear fluid, or it’s being injected into you, everything in it is water soluble, making it easy for your body to clear out any excess — or why I don’t worry about vaccines turning my fat cells into some toxic soup.”
Dr. Daniel Flanders, a pediatrician based in Toronto, agrees. “Ethylmercury does not accumulate in the fat as Dr. Neides suggests. It is briskly eliminated from the body by the kidneys into urine. To insinuate that it hangs around in fat for prolonged periods of time disrupting bodily fluids is false.”
As a general practice pediatrician, Dr. Flanders is likely to be on the receiving end of questions from parents concerned about Dr. Neides’ post, so what would he tell parents concerned about the issues Dr. Neides raised? “It’s very important that Cleveland Clinic was quick to clarify that they do not support Dr. Neides’ opinion. We need to be clear that this is one person’s opinion that’s hopefully not supported by the hospital with which Dr. Neides is affiliated. Additionally every single point he made appears to be driven by feelings and frustration and are not scientifically supported. His claims have actually been scientifically demonstrated over and over again to be false.”
Perhaps most hurtful for so many people, Dr. Neides again correlates autism with vaccination. This has been exhaustively disproven over the course of decades with studies across the globe following millions of children from infancy to adulthood. It just simply isn’t true, and Dr. Fischer echoes this frustration.
Fischer: “As for the purported link between vaccinations and autism there have been large scale studies including one done independently by the Danish government which could not detect any link between the vaccinations a child received and their likelihood of autism, and this involved literally thousands of children. As the author mentions, the rate of autism continues to increase. If the vaccine and autism correlation was valid we would see lowered rates of autism due to the lower vaccination rates in come communities and the removal of ethylmercury from childhood vaccines 15 years ago, but that’s not what’s happening. Vaccines do not cause autism.”
As we’ve written about before, this correlation is so hurtful to autistics. Not only is it untrue (research strongly supports a genetic component to autism), it frames being autistic as something that can and should be avoided. As humans none of us want to feel or be told that who we naturally are is somehow damaged or broken, or an outcome to be avoided.
So why after all this would Dr. Neides write a blog post so lacking in scientific support? I really can’t speculate. What I can say from what we know about his background, is that he is a primary care physician specializing in complementary medicine (including hypnosis), so his background isn’t in toxicology or immunology. In this post we’ve heard from a toxicologist and an immunologist who study nothing but toxins and the immune system respectively and strongly disagree with Dr. Neides’ claims.
To the scientific community Dr. Neides’ post is concerning, but not because it contains anything resembling the truth, but because it contains just the opposite.
Update 1.9.17 10:45am: This post was updated to include additional feedback from Dr. David Fischer, a clinical allergist and immunologist and adjunct professor at the University of Western Ontario.
Update 1.9.17 1:15pm: This post was updated to include additional feedback from Michelle Francl, PhD, a professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr college.