who found the real source
of the measles epidemic
There was also a token indigenous person, Nohely Pocaterra, from another Venezuelan tribe, whose interpreter was Jesus Cardoso, a former student and current enemy of Chagnonís. She got by far the biggest cheer of the evening, for saying things like "You must be our friends or you must be our enemies. We thank you for your help to all the indigenous people of the world." But, since she spoke no English, it was less impressive than it might have been when she announced "I have come here to determine what happened, and if and of the allegations are proven true it is necessary to determine that they never happen again. You must guarantee that this never happens again to any people in the world." Because by that time, the panel speakers had shown, carefully and comprehensively, that nothing alleged about the measles epidemic had in fact happened at all. Admittedly, they had had help. The University of Michigan, where Neel had worked, had set twenty people to investigating the allegations against him. The University of California in Santa Barbara, where Chagnon had been a colleague of the evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, had conducted an almost equally vigorous investigation.
By the end of the evening, the central, headline-grabbing allegations were in shreds: Turner and Sponsel had claimed in their email that the book proved
"Tierney presents convincing evidence that Neel and Chagnon, on their trip to the Yanomami in 1968, greatly exacerbated, and probably started, the epidemic of measles that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands" (Tierney's language-the exact figure will never be known) of Yanomami ."
By the end of public sessions it had been shown that the epidemic was under way three months before the Neel/Chagnon expedition arrived: Thomas Headland, an anthropologist with the Sumner Institute of Linguistics (and no friend of Chagnonís) read out a letter from an American missionary couple whose daughter, then aged 27 months, had unwittingly transmitted measles to a Yanomamö feast near the Brazilian border three months before the disease appeared on the upper Orinoco, a hundred and fifty miles away. The expeditionís field notes, retrieved by Susan Lindee, showed that they spent their first fortnight on a fire-fighting basis, innoculating all the Indians they could reach, and treating those who came down with the disease, even though this interfered with their research.
" The epidemic appears to have been caused, or at least worsened and more widely spread, by a campaign of vaccination carried out by the research team, which used a virulent vaccine (Edmonston B) that had been counter-indicated by medical experts for use on isolated populations with no prior exposure to measles (exactly the Yanomami situation). "
This, too, is quite untrue. The mortality rate among the villages where the vaccination had been carried out was far below what it would have been in an unvaccinated population. The idea that the Edmonston B vaccine was counter-indicated turns out to be due to the misquotation of sources in Tierneyís footnotes. Susan Lindee, a historian of science with full access to Neelís papers proved at the meeting that the vaccine was in any case not chosen by Neel, but by the World Health Orgnisation, which wrote to eight different drug companies asking for their help: all produced at that time only the Edmonston virus. It has been administered 19m times in America alone and countelss times more around the world, to a huge variety of populations. It has never, not once, been observed to transmit measles to anyone.
"It was known to produce effects virtually indistinguishable from the disease of measles itself."
The source that Tierney gives for this is a doctor who was discussing the disease in Western children, where it is as mild as we recognise, and who went on immediately afterwards to say that in tropical countries, among populations where the disease is lethal, the situation was entirely different.
"Medical experts, when informed that Neel and his group used the vaccine in question on the Yanomami, typically refuse to believe it at first, then say that it is incredible that they could have done it, and are at a loss to explain why they would have chosen such an inappropriate and dangerous vaccine. "
The medical expert Tierney quoted denied saying any such thing. There is not a single medically qualified person who has come forward to say that that there is anything dangerous about the vaccine Neel and Chagnon used. This fact, like others inconvenient to him, Tierney simply ignored, with an expression, almost transfigured, of misunderstood martyrdom. The most he would concede at a press conference is that "the question of transmissibility is still up in the air": at this point Dr Yvonne Maldonado, the expert on infectious diseases and childhood immunisation on the panel, finally lost her cool and let him have it with both barrels: "youíre not a physician, not an epidemiologist and not even a scientist as far as I can tell.
"There is absolutely no evidence for transmissibility." By now she was almost shouting at the man two feet away from her. "There is no evidence! There could always be that one in a gazillion chance that it could happen somewhere in a parallel universe. The vaccine did not cause an epidemic. It did not cause deaths. Those people are not immunodeficient by any definition I know of. Lowered resistance has nothing to do with immune deficient. it speaks to the fact that they have not been exposed to that vaccine. Certainly we are currently vaccinating almost every child we can reach all round the world."
"There is no record that Neel sought any medical advice before applying the vaccine. He never informed the >appropriate organs of the Venezuelan government that his group was planning to carry out a vaccination campaign, as he was legally required to do."
Susan Lindee produced records of the advice that Neel had sought, and received, from the Centre for Disease Control, which is the chief authority for infectious diseases in the USA, and where Dr Maldonado had acquired much of her expertise. It is clear that one Venezuelan institute was aware of his plans. Tierney, despite taking eleven years over a book which would allege that Dr Neel had planned a huge scientific experiment which would result in the death of thousands of innocent people, had never asked to see Neelís papers, which are publicly accessible since his death. Lindee finished her speech by saying: "Tierney's unsupported insinuations could have a devastating impact -- historians and even journalists have ethical standards, and these too can be violated in ways that hurt vulnerable people."
"Once the measles epidemic took off, closely following the vaccinations with Edmonson B, the members of the research team refused to provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami, on explicit orders from Neel. He insisted to his colleagues that they were only there to observe and record the epidemic, and that they must stick strictly to their roles as scientists, not provide medical help ."
So far as anyone can tell, this is not only completely untrue, but was added by Turner and Sponsel to the horrendous allegations already in Tierneyís manuscript. It does not appear in the printed version, nor in the New Yorker excerpt. Their journals and films show clearly that the team not only vaccinated the uninfected Yanomamö , they treated those already sick with injections to bring their temperature down.Next: Guilty, schmuilty