Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: American Anthropological Association, Anthropology News 44(4), April 2003
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.umich.edu/~urel/darkness.html

Resolution on Darkness in El Dorado and Danger to Immunization Campaigns

At the AAA meetings in November, members attending the Association’s Business Meeting voted to repudiate “the accusations or insinuations of starting or abetting a lethal measles epidemic by vaccination among the Yanomami made against the late James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon, and recognize the harmfulness of false accusations regarding vaccine safety.” Subsequently 108 members of the AAA mailed in petitions and became sponsors of this resolution, which is currently before the entire Association (see Referendum #1, page 13).

The March AN published letters that misrepresent the motion. The motion does not, as the writers of these letters falsely claim, call for “the total exoneration of Neel and Chagnon.” It does not patronize people in developing countries (or for that matter in America and Europe), who are desperately in need of responsible medical information. It does not suggest a “gag rule” that would prevent legitimate questioning of “vaccine disasters.”

The authors of these criticisms actually make a case for the motion, in that they do not appear to understand what a “vaccine disaster” may be. A “vaccine disaster” is precisely the kind of baseless rumor that alleges, as in the present instance, that a life-saving vaccine is lethal. A case in point occurred in the Philippines in 1995, where it was claimed that tetanus immunization of expectant mothers (a safe and effective procedure) was deliberately designed to cause miscarriage. The rumor was so powerful that it disrupted immunization against tetanus in the Philippines, and eventually in Tanzania, Nicaragua and Mexico as well, with disastrous results. Even this year, a New York Times article (“Distrust Opens the Door for Polio in India,” January 19, 2003), describes how new cases of polio in Uttar Pradesh have surged to a level six times higher than in 2001. The rise in the incidence of polio was due to a rumor that the vaccine caused sterility. Similar baseless claims about the risk of vaccines in the US and other Western countries are responsible for vaccine refusal and consequent sickness and death. We do not know how long the allegations surrounding Darkness in El Dorado will fester nor where or when they will surface in the form of refusal of vaccines. But we do know they have been circulated worldwide, they erode the trust that is essential for immunization and they add to the burden of suspicion and fear that undermines public health. From this we draw a simple lesson: it is wrong to recklessly allege that an immunization campaign is responsible for a lethal epidemic.

This is the single, sharply focused, ethical issue, heretofore ignored by the Association, to which we direct the attention of the membership. We invite colleagues to read the motion as it is written, not as it is misread by its critics, and consider it on its own merits.

Thomas Gregor
Vanderbilt U
Daniel Gross
World Bank