The past few days have been remarkable in the fight against vaccine-preventable diseases, and not for good reasons. Two stories broke, one of them major news, and I fear that both will be referenced and cited by vaccine adversaries for years to come. It doesn’t matter that one of them has been rescinded and the other’s author sternly disavowed and discredited. It’s already too late. They’re out there, and they both have high potential to reverse whatever progress we’ve made in assuaging fears about vaccines.
Let’s start with the minor news story. Last week Cleveland Clinic physician Dr. Daniel Neides, director of the Wellness Institute, composed a rant-filled blog and posted it on Cleveland.com. Dr. Neides was upset in the short term because he felt sick after receiving a flu shot despite it being marked “preservative free”, and angry in the long term because we live in a toxic soup. If that sounds like I’m exaggerating, he actually wrote that sentence:
See? Also note the number of shares, as of January 12 [IMAGE: M. May/Cleveland.com]
I wish to take a moment and point out three important things. Neides is a primary care physician at a wellness institute, and his lens is therefore going to favor the idea of health and healing through self-care rather than clinical intervention. That’s a wonderful and very important thing; however, focusing on eliminating his vaguely defined “toxins” as a panacea for all chronic diseases is at the very least simplistic and shallow.
The second point is to, again, refer to his expertise: primary care, wellness, and preventative medicine. This means that his training has likely included very little about infectious disease, vaccinology, immunology, or scientific study design and interpretation. This makes him woefully unqualified to assert the things he asserted in his article. The fact that he wrote it anyway, knowing full well that his affiliation with the Cleveland Clinic would carry weight with parents searching for information and advice on this matter, also indicates that he is arrogant enough not to realize or care that he has not had the appropriate training to evaluate the conclusions he made. As a small example, Neides was angry that the “preservative free” flu shot contains trace amounts of formaldehyde. “WHAT??” he wrote. “How can you call it preservative-free, yet still put a preservative in it?” What Neides clearly does not know, because he has had no training in laboratory science, is that formaldehyde is not a preservative. It is a fixative. People sometimes refer to it as the substance that “preserves” bodies during embalming, but it is not truly a preservative. What Neides does not know, because he has no training in vaccinology, is that formaldehyde is not “put in” the flu shot preparations. If there is any trace amount in a given vial (which often there is not), it is leftover from the preparation process. Live influenza viruses are cultivated and then killed through the process of formaldehyde fixation so that they can be safely injected without caused influenza. The formaldehyde is then washed away through a many-step process, and *if* any is left, it is a trace amount (see this FDA site explaining why many ingredients are in vaccines). No one “put” formaldehyde, which again is a fixative and not a preservative, into anything. But what do these pesky details matter? They matter because a doctor from the Cleveland Clinic claimed the flu shot was an unsafe product whose formaldehyde made him “miss two days of work with a terrible cough and body aches”.
Dr. Neives’ sickness is the third point I wish to bring up. Do people have reactions from flu shots? Absolutely. Some folks suffer fevers for 8-12 hours, injection site soreness, and a bit of malaise. Is that from formaldehyde toxicity? I would say no. Given, of course, that I am not a toxicologist, I’ll simply direct anyone wanting to decide for themselves to the list of symptoms for formaldehyde toxicity. If contacted through skin, they are itching, burning, and redness. If inhaled, they are cough and throat irritation. If injected or profused, which are the most relevant here, they are anemia, low blood pressure, and aberrant heart rhythms. No cough and body aches from injection. I wanted to allow readers the opportunity to fact-check the very claim at the center of Neives’ piece for themselves. I know he’s a doctor. I know he’s from a highly respected institution (which has, of course, loudly denounced both his conclusions and his behavior). This doesn’t make him right. If you read through the FDA site, the toxicity symptoms, and my explanation, you may right now be concluding that he is wildly wrong, and perhaps is a bit misguided on this topic. It kind of throws the rest of his claims into question, doesn’t it?
Let’s now move on to the second story. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an outspoken critic of vaccines based on the usual mythologies, announced that President-Elect Donald Trump was forming a commission to “examine vaccine safety and scientific integrity” (click here to read an earlier article of mine on politicians and scientific integrity), and that Kennedy had been asked to chair it. For the record, P-E Trump denies that Kennedy has been offered the position, saying instead that no decision had yet been made on his proposed autism committee. STOP.RIGHT.HERE. See the problem?
Kennedy is talking about a vaccine safety panel. Trump responds with a comment about his autism committee. The CLEAR implication is that these two things are related. In both Kennedy’s and Trump’s minds, of course, they are. To the mind of those with the expertise to comment (and the millions of wise people who listen), they are not. The way this story unfolded clearly insinuates, even on a subconscious level, that maybe this debate has not been settled. This is why I worry that it’s too late. Even if this committee never comes to fruition, it’s already too late.
Here's the problem! [Image M. May/CNBC.com]
The seeds have been replanted, and each time something like this happens it grows hard to “unplant” them. It is sowing doubt, and I cannot stress enough what a dangerous thing that is. I have commented here and in other media outlets about the very real consequences of vaccine-preventable diseases, as have numerous others. Those others include clinicians who have treated sick patients, scientists who have evaluated data, parents who have lost babies who were too young to be vaccinated, and even surviving patients themselves. Perhaps the person in the best position to comment is Dr. Peter Hotez, Director of Sabin Vaccine Institute (Washington, DC), Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Endowed Chair of Tropical Pediatrics (Baylor University), U.S. Science Envoy (Middle East and North Africa), and devoted father of an autistic daughter. As he writes in this illuminating piece, his position as both a vaccinologist and a dad is “unequivocal”: “as a parent who has loved my disabled child from the day she was born, I do not believe there is a single better way to protect her and millions of children around the world than through the miracle of vaccines.”
Who better to trust?