On January 6, Daniel Neides, MD, the medical director and chief operating officer of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, wrote a column that noted the potential harm from preservatives and adjuvants (such as aluminum and formaldehyde) in vaccines, and the schedule on which they are delivered. In his column, the integrative medicine physician, Neides, pictured, spoke of questions about vaccines while generally addressing the toxic burden that is viewed by many as a serious stressor on population health. Neides’ column went viral and a fury erupted. The Cleveland Clinic quickly “disavowed” his perspective. The medical delivery organization asked that the column be taken down, then announced plans to sanction its wellness leader.
Four days later, this social media-fueled battle over perspectives on vaccine policy was, literally, trumped. Robert Kennedy Jr. emerged from a meeting with the President-Elect announcing that he had been asked to chair a new Commission on Vaccination Safety and Scientific Integrity. Two years ago, Kennedy wrote a book about mercury in vaccines. He has opposed state requirements that allow no exemption to mandated childhood vaccines.
The actions at Cleveland Clinic and between Trump and Kennedy go to the heart of the most sacred of cows in U.S. medicine: vaccinations. Most research shows that vaccines do not cause autism. Other studies suggest that millions of lives are saved through their use. These created a bulwark of antagonism to any level of challenge to current vaccination policy or to the science that upholds the barricade. Not surprisingly, within hours of the Kennedy briefing to the press, CNN Politics reported that some in the Trump camp were denying that such a commission would be established.
Notably, Kennedy, Neides, and Trump—while each questions present policy—also make clear that they are, generally, “pro-vaccine.” Kennedy, speaking of his meeting with the President-Elect, said “he is very pro vaccine as am I.” Neides wrote that “vaccines can be helpful when used properly.” After his freedom of speech was whacked by his employer, Neides defended vaccines more assertively: “I fully support vaccinations and my concern was meant to be positive around the safety of them.” Trump’s comments on vaccinations echo the concerns raised by Neides, and many others. In a 2015 primary campaign debate, Trump stated, “I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time.”
The reporting of these debates reflects the practice in public health to frame the issue in black and white terms. One is either for, or against, with no room for dialogue. Forbes inappropriately titled its article “Cleveland Clinic Doctor Goes Full Anti-Vaccine.” Neides clearly did not go for “full anti-vaccine.” An MSNBC reporter framed the breaking news of the potential Trump initiative as an anti-vaccine exploration. At the medical blog-site STAT, owned by the Boston Globe, the issue was framed as a blast against integrative initiatives in mainstream organizations. The headline was “Anti-vaccine rant exposes conflict over hospitals’ embrace of alternative medicine.”
In the brief interview after his meeting with Trump, Kennedy describes the idea of the commission. “President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it,” said Kennedy. He continued: “He says his opinion doesn’t matter but the science does matter. We ought to be reading the science and we ought to be debating the science. Everybody ought to be assured.” Kennedy said that he was asked to chair a commission on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity.”
After first taking down Neides post, Cleveland.com decided to re-post the column, which as of January 11, 2017, had 19,000 Facebook shares. On January 10, the day of the Kennedy announcement, the site hosted a follow-up piece entitled “Cleveland Clinic’s anti-vaccine PR nightmare reflects shift in national conversation on vaccination.” STAT published a follow-up piece that highlighted the idea the differences on some practitioners with vaccination orthodoxy should become a reason to take down integrative programs: “Cleveland Clinic reevaluating alternative medicine offerings amid uproar over vaccine rant.” The focus was on whether the institutions should be associated with such practices as Reiki and homeopathy.
Comment: I have written and re-written this comment field a dozen times, seeking to synopsize my thinking on this deeply divisive and impactful subject. I am thinking how wise I have been in 23 years of routine reporting on the emergence of health and medicine to have basically stayed away from the topic altogether. The exception was just two weeks ago in a piece which, notably, reported controversy on the subject inside the naturopathic profession. My thoughts are still too unformed, and yet uneducated, to yet say more. For now, I hope you have found this synopsis of recent developments of value. If the Trump antagonists to the proposed commission do not suppress the initiative Kennedy announced, we can expect this subject will be in high profile in 2017.