Image: Getty

The distinguished Cleveland Clinic is facing a firestorm of complaints after the director of its wellness institute, Dr. Daniel Neides, posted an anti-vaccination article online. The Cleveland Clinic has disavowed the post, but anti-vaxxers will undoubtedly exploit this incident to the fullest given the source of the article.

In his January 7 blog post, “Make 2017 the year to avoid toxins (good luck) and master your domain: Words on Wellness,” Daniel Neides wrote that preservatives and other “toxins” in vaccines and flu shots are responsible for the increase in diagnosed cases of neurological diseases such as ADHD and autism—claims that are not supported in the scientific literature. Here’s a quick taste of the article:

Why do I mention autism...in this article. Because we have to wake up out of our trance and stop following bad advice. 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.

Dr. Daniel Neides (Image: Cleveland Clinic)

It’s the typical anti-vaxxer nonsense we’re accustomed to seeing (neuroscientist Steven Novella has penned an excellent takedown of the article), but it’s the source of the post that’s causing the controversy. In addition to being a respected family physician, Neides is the Medical Director and the Chief Operating Officer of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. It’s a huge embarrassment for the institution, which is now in damage control mode.

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Social media erupted over the weekend in response to the article, with many chastizing the Cleveland Institute for hiring someone with anti-vaccine views—and for putting him in such an important position.

Yesterday, the clinic put out the following statement (which has gone through at least one revision):

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. 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.

The website that published the article, Cleveland.com, is also facing criticism, both for publishing the article in the first place, and for temporarily taking it down. A note at the bottom of the post now reads, “This column was inexplicably removed from Cleveland.com for a few hours, but has now been restored in it’s entirety.” (Inexplicably? Really?)

Neides has issued his own statement, writing:

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.

It’s not entirely clear if Neides is being sincere, or if he’s simply backtracking given the ensuing shitstorm his article has generated. Sadly, the post will undoubtedly inspire the legions of anti-vaxxers who agree with Neides’ sentiments.

“Vaccines save millions of lives each year, and are the foundation for modern preventive health,” Dr. David B. Agus, a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California told Gizmodo. “A doctor, in a position of authority spreading misinformation, is akin to inciting harm. To get normative change we need leadership, and in the vaccine compliance arena this is sorely needed. I hope the discourse this doctor incited will bring a new level of understanding.”

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“Having anti-vaccine sentiments from a physician affiliated with a prestigious, world-famous institution is going to be seized on by anti-vaccine opponents and repeated again and again and again,” NYU Langone Medical Center bioethicist Arthur Caplan told Gizmodo. “It has the potential to do enormous harm.”

Caplan says the Cleveland Clinic’s response is not good enough, and that it needs to do more than just distance itself from the physician and threaten disciplinary action. A public relations campaign, and a highly visible pro-vaccine message, would be a good start, he says. Regardless, Caplan is worried about the damage done by Neides’ article.

“The anti-vaxx movement will consider this an outstanding Christmas present, and they’ll say the clinic is just censoring whistleblowers,” Caplan told Gizmodo. “They’re going to try to turn this guy into a martyr. The clinic ought to be ready to address this in a very aggressive manner because the damage done is huge.”

[STAT]