Letters

Venezuelan Response to Yanomamo Book

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Science  09 Feb 2001:
Vol. 291, Issue 5506, pp. 985-986
DOI: 10.1126/science.291.5506.985B

In his book Darkness in El Dorado (W. W. Norton), Patrick Tierney attacks the research methods and the conclusions reached by Napoleon Chagnon and several other researchers who were involved in studies of the Yanomamo people in Venezuela, studies that were carried out several decades ago (see Science, 29 Sept., p. 2251, and 19 Jan., p. 416). In the course of his book, Tierney weaves in half-truths that sweep honorable and decent researchers into his path in his efforts to disqualify everything related to his target.

Such is the case in the accusations and offensive allegations regarding the role played by Marcel Roche, a distinguished Venezuelan man of science. We, the authors of this letter, are some of Roche's colleagues who have devoted our lives over the last half-century to conducting and advancing, together with him, the best possible science in Venezuela. For all of us who collaborated with and learned from Roche in the 1950s and 1960s, it is offensive to read descriptions that imply he was a poorly trained or careless local doctor (he received his medical degree at The Johns Hopkins University and pursued medical research as a Fellow at Harvard Medical School).

Tierney argues that a deadly outbreak of measles in the Yanomamo in 1968 originated with the Edmonston B vaccine, which was administered by Roche and others according to a protocol designed by James Neel. We have no doubt that Roche, an endocrinologist, inoculated Yanomamo people in an effort to stop the spread of the infection, and not as part of an obscure effort to destroy the Yanomamo or to assess their limits of endurance to foreign microorganisms such as the measles virus, “in the attempt to resolve the great genetic question of selective adaptation.” The criticized Edmonston B vaccine against measles was later discontinued, but at the time was still used. It was the only weapon available to Roche in the field to fight the epidemic outbreak of the disease (live vaccines, which are prepared with attenuated pathogens, cannot produce a transmissible disease, although they are able to induce defenses against it). In fact, measles is known to have been present in the region before the arrival of the expedition in which Roche took part, as evidenced by testimonies by respected anthropologists from Venezuela (Nelly Arvelo, personal communication) and France (Jacques Lizot, in El Nacional, Caracas, 17 Nov. 2000). Furthermore, Tierney notes on page 82 of the book that a measles outbreak occurred in neighboring Brazil in 1967. What can be judged as an act of charity and good will is transformed by Tierney into a misleading complot in his dark book.

Even more absurd are the implications that autopsies were done at the Instituto de Investigaciones Médicas de la Fundación Luis Roche, of which Roche was director, to steal bones to be sent to U.S. agencies where studies on the effects of radiation on virgin populations were being carried out. At the Instituto, which was a refuge for Venezuelan researchers upon closure of the Caracas university by the dictatorial regime of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, no studies on humans were ever performed nor any forensic work done. Such activities were carried out at public hospitals.

The Instituto was closed in 1958 when the dictatorship was overthrown, but Tierney refers to the activities at the Instituto involving the Atomic Energy Commission, in juxtaposition to events involving Roche that occurred 10 or more years later, at a different location and with different people, linking his story of the Edmonston B vaccine to studies by Roche using radioactive iodine. By citing the events in 1968, Tierney appears to be trying to throw a questionable light on Roche's work 10 years before. And in the discussion of Roche's studies with iodine, Tierney suggests that the doses Roche used were dangerous; however, the oral dose administered by Roche to study thyroid uptake of iodine, which he used with thousands of subjects, has no toxic effect. He used the standard dose for radioactive iodine uptake (RAIU) tests that is still used today in medical practice and can be found in any general medicine textbook. This is one of many details revealing Tierney's ignorance of the subject matter and lack of appropriate technical advice.

Roche was indeed one of the few Venezuelan scientists who, in the early 1950s, had been trained in nuclear medicine. He took part, beginning in 1952, in studies recognized worldwide that led to the eradication of goiter, and the consequent myxedema and retardation, in the Andean region. These studies, using radioactive iodine, were already advanced by mid 1954 and were completed in 1955. He became the director of the Nuclear Center in Venezuela in 1958 and the first president of the Venezuela National Research Council in 1969. Would there be a better person to contact than Marcel Roche if an officer from a foreign nuclear agency (specifically, Paul Aebersold) was to visit Venezuela in 1954. Would it not be justified to make a mark next to his name, as Aebersold did in a list of potential interviewees. However, Roche is portrayed by Tierney as the “contact” of some kind of an atomic mafia that harmed the aborigines to fill data records. Whatever Tierney has written about him, Marcel Roche will be remembered as a distinguished scholar and pacifist.

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