Health & Medicine

H1N1 endangers Indians in the Amazon

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs


Amazon Rainforest (Image: Flickr user Ivan Mlinaric (cc: by-nc-sa))

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Report by Marco Werman, PRI's "The World"

H1N1 has now reached an indigenous group deep in the Amazon. A thousand members of the Yanomami tribe are believed to have caught the flu, seven have died.

The government of Venezuela has sealed off part of the rainforest to prevent the flu from decimating the Yanomami Indians.

Survival International is a London based indigenous rights group. It's research and field director, Fiona Watson believes the flu came in through Novaka, an area in the Yanomami territory which has the most contact with the outside world.

"There's an air strip there, there's a Catholic mission station so people who are working with the Yanomami or visiting for whatever reason, it could be doctors, government officials, people working on health and education programs, come in and out so I think it has come in that way," said Watson.

According to Watson, the Yanomami are the largest of the isolated indigenous groups in the Amazon rainforest. There are about 32 thousand Brazil and Venezuela.

"They've lived there for hundreds, if not thousands of years," said Watson. "They live by hunting and gathering and they're very much a people who are living in the forest, completely self-sufficient, and came into contact with outsiders really in any great way from the fifties onwards. And the Yanomami have very little immunity; many Amazonian tribes, remote tribes, have very little immunity to common diseases you know, which for us don't present too much of a problem like the common cold or flu. They haven't had this immunity because they’ve been so isolated."

The Yanomami have suffered from other epidemics in the past that were introduced from outside their community. Said Watson, in the fifties, border commission authorities and missionaries brought measles.

"And then I think possibly the most devastating, certainly in terms of numbers who died, were the invasions in the 1980's where you had forty thousand gold miners invaded the Yanomami territory in Brazil and 20 percent of the Yanomami died, and that was through these diseases like malaria, like measles, like flu to which they had no resistance."

Watson says that, while the Venezuelan government has acted fairly quickly to help the Yanomami, it isn't doing enough to provide "permanent healthcare" in these areas. Her concern is for the indigenous groups that are even more isolated than the Yanomami and have very little immunity to various diseases.

"I know of cases where you might only have five survivors or twenty survivors of a tribe who are literally on the run, fleeing these invaders; and if there is any casual contact, then they will be exposed to diseases and we simply won't know. It'll be you know, like a hidden genocide."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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