Thomas N. Headland
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When Did the Measles Epidemic Begin among the Yanomami?

Thomas N. Headland


Keith Wardlaw's eyewitness account of the measles epidemic among the Yanomami at Toototobi, Brazil, in September and October 1967

(This is part of Headland's November 16th report to the AAA president)


Retired missionary Keith Wardlaw sent the following letter to Thomas Headland on November 11, 2000 via e-mail. This is Wardlaw's full letter with no deletions. Note: Keith Wardlaw, who is age 77, requests that no anthropologists or news media people contact him directly. Legitimate scholars researching this topic may contact the attorney for New Tribes Mission, Mr. Scott Ross, at e-mail scott_ross@ntm.org. NTM told me they are willing to receive questions from anthropologists officially investigating the matter, and to try to answer them as time allows, if the questions are sent via e-mail to Mr. Ross.


Mr. Headland: Here is a bit of scenario of events my wife and I recall regarding the outbreak of measles at our Post on the Toototobi River. The Toototobi River is in Brazil and the headwaters are close to the Venezuela border. We were located approximately 25 to 30 miles down river.

In June 1967, I made a trip to Canada for family issues relating to the health of my elderly mother. Myrtle and our two children remained in the tribe. In late July, Myrtle and our children traveled to Manaus, Brazil to meet me upon my return. Lorraine Wardlaw, my minor daughter, born June 29, 1965, had been suffering from some gum problems for four or more months, so the trip to Manaus facilitated her seeing a doctor there. It was determined by the Manaus doctor that the gum situation was not a serious condition.

A couple of days later, after arriving in Boa Vista, we had our daughter again examined by a MAF doctor, Charles Patton, who confirmed that our daughter's gum condition was not serious.

I and my family then returned to Toototobi. After a few days, Lorraine began to run a fever. Later she broke out in a rash, which our Brazilian brother diagnosed as the measles. It is unknown where Lorraine was exposed to the measles.

The Yanomami in the village where we were located were having a typical Yanomami feast when the measles broke out. They had invited three neighboring villages to participate. We estimate that the total of all present was somewhere between 150 and 200.

Unfortunately, at that time we did not have permission to have a short wave radio, so had to wait until our next scheduled flight to get the word out. When that flight arrived we sent an emergency call to Manaus. Emergency medical flights were made and a doctor [Note added by TNH: Charles Patton] and nurse were sent to assist us. A pharmacist in Boa Vista provided some 600 ampoules of penicillin, advising us that we could return those that we did not use. The penicillin was to combat the possibility of a secondary infection of pneumonia. With very few exceptions, everyone of the Yanomami present at the feast came down with the measles in September or October 1967. Most of the Indians received a series of penicillin injections, according to the instructions of the doctor in Boa Vista. Seventeen of the Yanomami died during this epidemic. The Government provided us with a short wave radio for this emergency.

In January 1967, Dr. Neel and Napoleon Chagnon had made a visit to Toototobi. It was my understanding that Dr. Neel knew of the devastating effect that measles could have on a primitive tribe and arranged to send vaccine from the U.S. to vaccinate the Indians. This vaccine was not then available in Brazil. It arrived and we asked permission to vaccinate the Indians, since we had access to qualified nurses. This request was made to the SPI, (Society for the Protection of Indians). They said that they would send qualified personnel, since they did not want us to do the vaccinating. We requested this permission on several occasions with the same response. The vaccine that Dr. Neel and his colleagues had provided, at great expense to him and his colleagues, was never able to be used, as no permission was ever granted to us, and no SPI Doctor or Nurse arrived before the expiration date on the vaccine, which rendered it unusable.

Let me reaffirm, it is our conviction that Dr. Neel and Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon had absolutely nothing to do with the introduction of measles among the Yanomami Indians on the Toototobi River. As my wife and I have over the years looked back upon the circumstance, the measles was unknowingly introduced from our daughter being exposed during our time in Manaus. That is a difficult thing for us to realize because of our love and concern for the Yanomami people from the many years of working among them.

It is my belief that Dr Neel, on the contrary, did as much as was within his power to avoid the possibility of an outbreak of measles. Our Brazilian brother was also a tremendous help during those difficult days and weeks. He made sure that no Indian wanting to visit ever reached the maloca, but was turned back on the trail. As devastating as it was, the number of deaths would have no doubt been much higher than the seventeen that occurred, had our Brazilian brother, and the rest of us, not insisted that no one leave the Toototobi base, and no visitors be allowed to visit until after the epidemic was completely over. The Indians themselves respected and observed our decision. From these restrictions we were successful in containing the measles outbreak to only our area. During our treatment of these Indians, they were all housed either on location at the Indian village where we had our houses, or across the river at the neighboring Indian village.

I trust this recital of the events as we remember them, is of some help.