Groups that oppose universal vaccines are getting a booster shot this week in both the medical and political worlds.
Over the weekend, a doctor at the well-respected Cleveland Clinic posted a blog on the clinic’s website.
In it, Dr. Daniel Neides, director and chief operating officer of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, stated that ingredients in vaccines are potentially harmful and may contribute to increases in neurological conditions such as autism.
In addition, on Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump met with Robert Kennedy, Jr. Afterward, Kennedy said Trump had asked him to chair a new commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) immediately issued a statement reiterating its support for vaccines.
The American Medical Association (AMA) also weighed in late today.
"We are deeply concerned that creating a new commission on vaccination safety would cause unnecessary confusion and adversely impact parental decision-making and immunization practices," a statement from the AMA said.
Kennedy, however, told reporters the commission will allow society to “debate the science” of vaccination.
That view was echoed by Louise Kuo Habakus, the founder and executive director of Fearless Parent.
Habakus told Healthline the current debate over vaccines “shuts out” a lot of points of view on vaccines.
She is hopeful the blog and the Kennedy commission will spur discussion so that “we can all get on one side.”
Her group is hosting a forum on Jan. 24 in New Jersey entitled A Conversation About Childhood Vaccination. The sold-out event will be attended by about 400 people. Kennedy is listed as one of the speakers.
All this activity has supporters of vaccines worried.
Cynthia Leifer, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Cornell University, told Healthline the incidents undermine the factual evidence that backs up the necessity and safety of vaccines.
“When this happens, the public perception of science, physicians, and medicine goes down, and that is tragic,” Leifer said.
What the doctor said
In his blog, Neides said he was inspired to write about the issue because he became seriously ill 12 hours after receiving a flu shot.
He called this part of “the constant toxic burden” the government unleashes on the public as people are “lined up like cattle and injected with an unsafe product.”
Neides included the air, water, and food supplies in this “toxic soup.” Neides also mentioned the mostly debunked theory that childhood vaccines can cause autism.
The Cleveland Clinic doctor said he didn’t know if that claim is true, but said infants are being “overburdened with preservatives and adjuvants in the vaccines.”
The mention of the autism theory brought out an immediate and harsh response from supporters of vaccines.
Some went as far as to call Neides a “quack,” while others criticized him for bringing up a theory they say has been widely disproven.
The day after the blog appeared, officials at the Cleveland Clinic released a statement saying they are committed to “evidence-based medicine,” and support vaccinations.
“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 statement read.
The clinic did not specify what the disciplinary action would be.
Neides released his own statement the same day, saying, “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.”
Leifer said she was concerned Neides criticized vaccines without backing up his claim with scientific studies or anecdotal evidence.
She added the furor over the blog might deter medical officials who support vaccines to speak out publically.
“I think it scares them more than it empowers them,” Leifer said.
Habakus, on the other hand, said the thing that frightens her is the reaction to the blog.
She said the criticism of Neides and the description of his blog as “an anti-vax rant” have hurt public discourse on the issue.
Habakus said Neides is “not alone” in the medical profession in his concerns over vaccinations, and all voices need to be heard.
“It’s dangerous when only certain flavors of people are allowed to speak,” she said.
The debate may get louder
The discussion of vaccines may get more intense this year after Trump takes office and the Kennedy commission convenes.
The President-elect has made statements in the past expressing concerns about vaccine safety.
On Tuesday, AAP officials felt compelled to release a statement in support of vaccines.
“Pediatricians partner with parents to provide the best care for their children, and what is best for children is to be fully vaccinated. We stand ready to work with the White House and the federal government to share the extensive scientific evidence demonstrating the safety of vaccines, including the recommended schedule,” the statement read.
Leifer said she has “grave concerns” about the presidential commission and the message it sends.
“It legitimizes and validates what [vaccine opponents] think,” she said.
Habakus, however, said she hopes the commission can help bring people together.
“This is a conversation that needs to be occurring,” she said.
She noted that people who opposed the amount of radiation in X-rays in the early 1900s were ostracized for their views and were eventually proven right when those levels were reduced.
Habakus said vaccines do sicken and injure some people.
She added the core issue is about choice. Parents should be able to prevent their children from being vaccinated if they feel it is unsafe.
She noted there is a school of thought that it is better to let children get measles, mumps, and chicken pox when they are young because their natural immune system builds up a better defense than do vaccines.
“People should have choices,” she said.
That’s an argument that Leifer doesn’t buy.
“We have child car seat laws, and when a parent chooses not to follow them they endanger their child, but when a parent chooses not to vaccinate they endanger their child and all the children around them. We should stand firm on vaccine requirements for children to attend schools,” she said.
She added that society seems to have “social amnesia” when it comes to vaccines. Two generations ago, the public was frightened by the spread of diseases such as polio, and strongly supported vaccinations.
“The bottom line is I believe vaccines save lives,” she said.