Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: American Anthropological Association, Anthropology News 44(2), February 2003
Source URL: http://www.umich.edu/~urel/darkness.html

Neel’s Vaccination Effort

Martins (Nov 2002 AN) contends that Neel’s vaccination effort among the Yanomami contained a research agenda; that Neel did not give his full attention to the vaccination effort because of his research program; and that Neel did not provide full disclosure of the aims of his research. The proof offered for the first contention is that Neel returned to the Yanomami a year later and took follow-up blood samples from one of the 28 villages he vaccinated to determine titer levels and immunity. Martins neglects the distinction between the application of planned experimental treatments in a protocol designed by the investigator to test an “a priori” hypothesis and the scientific interpretation of observations of naturally occurring phenomena that were unplanned and independent of the investigator. Observations of the latter type are sometimes referred to as “natural experiments” but they differ substantially in character from the direct manipulation characteristic of the former approach. Neel understood the danger the Yanomami faced as a “virgin-soil” population and responsibly reported on the effects of his efforts.

Martins fails to recognize that Neel used 733 out of 1,033 available vaccine doses within the first three weeks he was in the field before measles was confirmed in the area. This represents a major effort considering the size of the villages and the distance between them.

Members of the 1968 expedition did not provide full disclosure about the aims of the research project. They told individuals that they were taking blood samples to look inside the blood for diseases instead of discussing genetic differentiation between local populations. Because the phrasing they used was reminiscent of that used by government health officials in anti-malaria campaigns, it may have created unrealistic expectations of continued medical care by Neel. In hindsight, we can fault Neel for not trying harder to find language for describing the aims of his research in ways the Yanomami could understand. But this lack of disclosure was more reflective of the scientific ethos of the time than of an attempt to deceive.

In the 1960s, Neel was instrumental in establishing WHO guidelines for working with indigenous communities. These include respect for the dignity of individuals, satisfactory reward for participation, respect for the traditions of the community and regard for the integrity of the group. Over the past 30 years, the ways in which these goals have been realized have changed markedly in the hope that communities will not be left with feelings of injustice and betrayal.

Trudy Turner
U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee