Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Fox News, Monday, October 2, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.foxnews.com/science/100200/yanomami.sml

Report: Measles Vaccine Possibly Killed Amazon Tribe

Reuters - New York

Prominent U.S. scientists possibly contributed to a deadly measles epidemic among the Amazon's Yanomami Indians and destabilized the isolated group with their research methods, The New Yorker magazine reported Sunday.

The charges by Patrick Tierney, a visiting anthropology scholar at Pittsburgh University and human rights activist for Amazon tribes, have already caused a storm in the world of anthropology, sparking a heated debate on the Internet.

The New Yorker article is based on Tierney's book, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, to be published Nov. 16 by W.W. Norton.

The article said for more than 30 years, anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon studied the Yanomami Indians of Venezuela and Brazil, portraying them as violent and competitive. Chagnon, who retired this year as a professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, made films, wrote two books and more than 30 articles on his research from the mid-1960s.

But Tierney wrote in The New Yorker that during his own 10-year study of the Yanomami from 1989, "What I found was sharply at odds with what Chagnon described." He added that Chagnon's account of Yanomami warfare in his famous book Yanomamo: The Fierce People , seemed "greatly exaggerated."

Tierney also describes Chagnon's collaboration with a mentor, James Neel, a prominent geneticist at the University of Michigan, on a 1968 expedition which included a measles vaccination effort that coincided with an outbreak of measles among the Yanomami.

From 1965 to 1972 Neel received $2 million from the former Atomic Energy Commission to compare the cellular mutation rates of Japanese survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings with those of primitive tribes.

The author said that Chagnon at first agreed to talk to The New Yorker for its article but changed his mind days later and declined comment. Neel died in February this year.

Measles Epidemic

Over a three-month period after the vaccinations, "the worst epidemic in the Yanomami's history broke out," Tierney wrote in The New Yorker . He said that mission journals, data from the expedition and interviews with Yanomami witnesses suggest "the course of the epidemic closely tracked the movement's of Neel's team."

The author reported that "between 15 and 20 percent of the Yanomami who contracted measles died in the epidemic." At the time of the expedition, the tribe's population numbered around 20,000. It is now estimated closer to 10,000.

Neel and his researchers administered the vaccine known as Edmonston B to the Yanomami despite warnings that it was a dangerous strain for immune-depressed people, Tierney reported. The vaccine, standard treatment in 1968, is now off the market.

He added that measles vaccines were known to produce severe symptoms in people suffering from anaemia, dysentery or chronic exposure to malaria, and the Yanomami suffered from all three.

Tierney quoted Adelfa Betancourt, the director of Venezuela's vaccination department, as saying Neel's team administered the vaccine without its permission at a time when Venezuela had begun giving another vaccine, the Schwarz vaccine, in diluted doses all over the country.

"It cannot be determined with accuracy how many died after receiving the vaccination," Tierney wrote.

Chagnon has said that no one was vaccinated contracted measles.

"Today, scientists still do not know whether people who have been vaccinated with Edmonston B can transmit measles," Tierney said.

On one visit to the Yanomami in 1996, Tierney wrote it struck him that "the villagers had combated malnutrition, intestinal parasites, and, more recently, malaria. But what they could not comprehend — and what had shaken their world — was the sudden arrival of visitors who seemed to offer an easier life and, at the same time, sowed so much confusion."

He reported that the Yanomami people said Chagnon staged scenes for one of his award-winning anthropological films.

Tierney quoted anthropologist Kenneth Good, who lived among the Yanomami for 12 years, describing Chagnon as "a hit-and-run anthropologist who comes into villages with armloads of machetes to purchase cooperation for his research. Unfortunately, he creates conflict and division wherever he goes."

The author also quotes Irven DeVore, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard, as saying Chagnon "gathered very detailed and documented data on the villages — so much so that another investigator could study the population and come to a different conclusion. Chagnon's study was 'scientific' in the best sense of the word."