Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: American Anthropological Association, Anthropology News 44(7), October 2003
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.umich.edu/~urel/darkness.html

Referendum on Darkness in El Dorado and Danger to Immunization Campaigns

In September, members of the AAA received a corrected ballot for a referendum regarding immunization and the allegations associated with Darkness in El Dorado. You will recall that James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon were charged with administering a “virulent vaccine” to the Yanomami that spread and exacerbated the measles epidemic of 1968. The charge was totally false, and it was rejected by the AAA’s investigative report. What the report did not do, however, was recognize the dangers to immunization campaigns from reckless and irresponsible allegations regarding vaccine safety. These false accusations are major public health risks, which are responsible for widespread preventable illness and death. According to August 2003 issues of Science and the New York Times, for example, the number of cases of measles in Britain has tripled since last year as a direct consequence of baseless rumors regarding the safety of the vaccine. (For other instances in developing countries, see Gregor and Gross, April 2003 AN, p 3.) We commend the present referendum to you, which is sponsored by more than one hundred of your colleagues, as a chance to put the Association on record with respect to this important issue.

Thomas Gregor
Vanderbilt U
Daniel R Gross
World Bank
Arthur A Demarest
Vanderbilt U
Stephen Beckerman
Penn State
Jeffrey D Ehrenreich
U of New Orleans
Carol R Ember
Melvin Ember
Human Relations Files
Douglas Raybeck
Hamilton C
Clayton Robarchek
Wichita State U


We would like to comment on the referendum currently before you which Thomas Gregor and Daniel Gross put forward concerning an allegation associated with the publication of Patrick Tierney’s book Darkness in El Dorado. The referendum deals with just one issue: the danger posed by the false story that the late James Neel used a dangerous vaccine with the intention of exacerbating a measles epidemic among the Yanomamo in 1968. The resolution simply asks that the AAA explicitly repudiate this story in order to discourage its spread and asks that the Committee on Ethics deliberate on the ethical issue raised by the dissemination of stories of this sort. Given the fact that the resolution deals exclusively with this one very important issue, we believe members of the association should think seriously about supporting it.

The publication of Darkness in El Dorado and the events surrounding it raised a large number of ethical questions that deserve extensive vetting by professional anthropologists. However, the debate of these issues will not be constructive if people are unable to separate one issue from another and discuss one issue at a time on its own merits. Passage of this referendum would leave the other issues raised by Tierney’s book untouched. It neither assigns blame nor exonerates. Several letters appearing in the March issue of AN fail to recognize this and discourage support for the resolution on the ground that it will discourage future discussion of other issues, or discourage people from coming forward with legitimate complaints about public health programs in the future. The resolution does no such thing. We urge members of the Association to keep this in mind when deciding how to vote on Gregor and Gross’s referendum.

The appearance of Tierney’s book in Spanish (El Saqueo de El Dorado, 2002) makes this issue all the more urgent. Tierney’s insinuations concerning the 1968 epidemic are now available to the Spanish-speaking world, but the numerous reports that put these insinuations in their proper perspective are not.

William Irons
Northwestern U
James Boster
U of Connecticut
Jerome H Barkow
Dalhousie U
Mark Flinn
U of Missouri
Ralph L Holloway
Columbia U
Daniel B Hrdy, MD
Sarah B Hrdy
UC Davis
David B Kronenfeld
UC Riverside
Joseph H Manson
Lawrence S Sugiyama
U of Oregon


It is my understanding a resolution will be presented before your membership regarding the measles immunization allegations associated with Darkness in El Dorado. Although I am not a member of your Association, I have been consulted extensively and repeatedly in the past three years regarding these allegations. I serve as a consultant on vaccines and vaccine policy to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among other groups. Currently I am the Wilburt C Davison Professor of Pediatrics Emeritus at Duke University and was, along with Nobel Laureate John F Enders, the developer of measles virus vaccines that are used throughout the world today. These vaccines have, according to the World Health Organization, reduced an annual measles mortality of 8 million children to < 800,000 in 2002. Efforts continue to extend the benefits of these vaccines to all children globally. In this regard, the referendum before you is especially significant as it responds directly to the false claims made in Darkness in El Dorado that the Edmonston B measles vaccine initiated and spread an epidemic. In truth it did not, nor has it ever in its history of use from 1963-1975 and nearly 20 million child recipients.

Of equal importance, this referendum focuses on the extreme dangers of publishing false claims about vaccines. The progress noted above in control and eventual elimination of measles would be seriously threatened by false rumors that would arouse parental anxiety and reduce vaccine acceptance. Vaccine safety as well as efficacy is one of the two prime concerns of agencies such as our Food and Drug Administration that licenses such products. Evaluation of vaccines is critically important but must be done with scientific reliability. Reckless disparagement, as was perpetrated with Darkness in El Dorado, is egregious and inexcusable, especially when fostered by scientifically capable individuals who should know better. The referendum that you are considering reflects major issues, which impact on human life and well being, especially in the developing world. If I can provide any further information, please feel free to contact me. Meanwhile, I do hope sincerely that my comments will be helpful to you in your decision.

Samuel L Katz, MD
Duke U More on the Referendum To read all AN Dialogue on the Referendum on Darkness in El Dorado and Danger to Immunization Campaigns see the AAA website. Correspondence and commentaries from the March, April and October 2003 issues of AN are posted at www.aaanet.org/edtf/ref/index.htm. The full text of the referendum is also posted there.