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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: The Guardian (London), Guardian Home Pages 12, October 4, 2000
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The Guardian (London)

October 4, 2000

Professor denies team triggered measles epidemic

James Meek Science correspondent

An Oxford University professor involved in giving South American Indians a measles vaccine in the 1960s has rejected allegations in the US that he and other scientists may have deliberately triggered an epidemic of the disease.

Speaking for the first time about his role in the project, Ryk Ward, professor of biological anthropology at Oxford, said he and other scientists saved Indians stricken by a measles outbreak which had begun just before they arrived.

The source of the accusations, which have shaken the world of anthropology, is a soon to be published book, Darkness In El Dorado, by the journalist Patrick Tierney.

In an email leaked to the Guardian last month, two anthropologists who have read proofs of the book say it shows that the leader of the measles expedition, James Neel, was a callous, manipulative figure, who coldly observed without intervening as hundreds of Indians fell victim to a disease he either started deliberately or, at best, let rage unchecked.

Dr Neel, professor of human genetics at the University of Michigan, died in February. Prof Ward is one of the few survivors of his expedition to the Yanomami Indians of Venezuela in 1968, when the measles epidemic hit.

One of the anthropologists who has seen the book, Terry Turner of Cornell University, says Dr Neel deliberately used an unsafe measles vaccine on the Yanomami, without consulting medical experts or the Venezuelan government, held his team back from giving medical help to the sick and dying, and sought to use the tragedy to back up his "fascistic" theories of the survival of the fittest humans.

Prof Ward said all the allegations were demonstrably false. He was less troubled by the book than by the role of Prof Turner and others, who, he claimed, had assumed it was accurate without trying to find out what had really happened.

"I felt then, and still feel now, that the decision to vaccinate was the correct and ethically responsible thing to do."

Prof Ward, 57, said the expedition's main purpose was to study the genetic makeup of the Yanomami. But Dr Neel was concerned the spread of missionaries, loggers and prospectors into the Yanomami territory, around the Orinoco river, could expose them to diseases to which they had no immunity, such as measles. Far from causing the epidemic, said Prof Ward, the expedition's plans to vaccinate villagers were thrown into disarray when, a week before they left Caracas, they heard the measles epidemic had begun.

The team then vaccinated Indians in about eight villages in the hope of stemming the epidemic. Although none of those vaccinated appeared to have caught measles, and no one died of the disease, they were unable to prevent it spreading into more remote communities, and there were many deaths.