Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Hindu, December 31, 2000
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A question of survival

IT is a sober time for medical anthropologists these days. A furore has developed over the alleged misdeeds of a geneticist and anthropologists as they studied the Yanomami Indians of the Brazilian and Venezuelan rain forests in the 1960s.

If the accusations of genocide and scientific misconduct in journalist Patrick Tierney's soon-to-be-released book, Darkness in El Dorado, are true, then the Yanomami may have been brought to the edge of extinction through a questionable campaign of measles immunisations. They may also have been unfairly characterised as fiercely warlike in staged documentaries. What is more, some of the scientists' work with the tribe was sponsored by the United States Atomic Energy Commission, raising questions about government motivation to test a theory of genetic hardiness in the face of challenges such as epidemic disease.

If the accusations are not true, then Tierney managed to fool editors and a major publisher with many sensationalised reports, all libellous in nature. The jury is still out on the subject. (A professional hearing and debate was held for the American Anthropological Association conference in November.)

Anthropology is the study of human beings. Medical anthropology is the study of how humans face illness and disease within their cultures. Whenever researchers in these fields gaze at their research subjects with anything less than full respect, people invariably suffer, and researchers should make amends. The question is: Did native people suffer due to intentionally criminal acts on the part of U.S. scientists?

Anthropology, as a discipline, has been cleaning up its behaviour for the past few decades. Once an offshoot of an imperialistic attitude and colonial age, many anthropologists made names for themselves by "mining" the secrets and stories of uncontacted native people, leaving confusion and exploitation in their wake.

In the last few decades, anthropology has undergone heavy critique, and professional ethics committees now oversee research. Maintaining respect for and protecting the dignity of any study participant (at home or abroad) includes a commitment to not "exoticism" or objectify those we study.

The allegations in the Tierney book are so explosive, the publisher (W. W. Norton and Co.) is not releasing any more pre- publication manuscripts. However, reviewers have reported that the most serious accusation is the supposed inoculation of the Edmonton B measles vaccine to thousands of Yanomami Indians, an indigenous people who may have been an inappropriate choice, and, consequently, hundreds of them died. Other claims in the book centre on the false staging of the well-known Yanomami axe fight for a film, and the twisting of data to support findings that the most brutal warriors won more wives.

I am beginning to suspect the allegations are not entirely accurate. I have been privy to a flurry of academic e-mail from both foes and supporters of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and geneticist James W. Neel, who died earlier this year. As other scientists, including medical doctors, epidemiologists and immunologists, weigh in with their opinions, it seems that the field work of Chagnon and Neel was not out of the ordinary or malicious.

For example, in 1968, the use of Edmonton B measles vaccine at a time when an epidemic was already underway was considered a scientifically established method of interrupting an outbreak.

Dr. Peter Aaby, a medical anthropologist with experience in curbing African measles, noted that "vaccine virus has never been transmitted to susceptible contacts and cannot cause measles even in intimate contact".

A measles epidemic was spreading through neighbouring areas at the time of their work. However, the Yanomami were thought to be a population that had not previously been exposed to measles.

Ethical and professional care by any medical team would include quick dispensation of the measles vaccine, plus back-up provisions of gamma globulin and antibiotics. From reviews of Neel's field notes, he was busy administering both once the contagion was ignited. He was obviously trying to curb the outbreak by administering the vaccine.

If you can give the vaccine within 72 hours of exposure, it is likely you will have only a mild vaccine reaction (localised rash, heat, slight fever) and not the raging illness with its higher incidence of brain damage, deafness, kidney failure and fatality. Millions of doses of Edmonton B have been given worldwide, and no evidence exists that unwanted transmission of measles by the vaccine alone has occurred. Care must be administered, however, when giving the vaccine to children in developing lands who may be suffering from low protein stores, malnutrition, parasitic disease or malaria. They need more immediate care to handle short-term febrile responses, although studies show that these children still manage to develop excellent antibody levels, often better than children in developed nations. No matter how you may feel about various immunisations for yourself and your family, it is hard to deny the incredible value they have held in curbing mortality in many nations. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that before the measles vaccination, over six million infants and children died in one year. With increased efforts to immunise worldwide, the estimate for 1999 has fallen to 800,000 deaths (still too high, but an appreciable drop). The WHO intends to wipe out measles through global use of safe vaccines, just as similar efforts have largely eliminated polio.

However, the questions that still remain for myself and others relate to the lingering, distasteful style of Neel's research.

Described as a "Cold War warrior and elitist" by historian Susan Lindee, Neel unabashedly put forth his singular views about "primitives" as a natural gene pool from which to test ideas about superior leadership genes in dominant males. That in itself is an embarrassing, if not eugenic, stance. Unfortunately, the man is no longer here to defend himself, and kicking dirt on a scientist's reputation once he is gone, rarely accomplishes repair or retribution. Many of the book's other claims (that he vaccinated thousands of native people without the Government's authority) have been proven false. Neel had the permission of the Venezuelan Government, and in fact, responded with additional resources as the crisis progressed.

So, once all the claims and rebuttals are in, we are left in the final analysis with the stark realisation that whenever we stick our noses past our own boundaries into other people's territories, there is every likelihood of harm being done, even if our intentions are good. With indigenous people, this often means an introduction of germs, transported animals, technology or bulldozers, which all leads to a loss of habitat and life.

Protection of the 300 million tribal people all over the world often begins with the simple act of respect.

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E-mail the writer at peg-hindu@hotmail.com