Health and Medicine

Previously Uncontacted Tribe Have Contracted Influenza

July 22, 2014 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: FUNAI

Earlier this month, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) confirmed that an Amazonian tribe that had never before had contact with the outside world had made voluntary contact; a rare event that is usually brought on by threats of violence. Rather than be excited to learn more about the group’s ways and customs, anthropologists have been fearful that the tribe would be exposed to diseases for which they have no immunity. Their worst fears were confirmed when FUNAI announced that those who made contact have indeed contracted the flu, which has annihilated entire tribes in the past.

Based on their hair style and skin ornamentation, it is possible that the individuals who made contact belong to the Chitonahua tribe. Their language is similar to Panoan, which allowed them to communicate with the tribe they found. The isolated people contacted a tribe in Acre, a Brazilian state with a low population density at about 5 per square kilometer. They had been living in Peru along the Xinane River, but were forced to leave in what was likely a threat from illegal loggers or drug traffickers who utilize the river. They reported they had been fired upon.

The two tribal groups co-existed peacefully for about three weeks. During that time, the five men and two women who had made contact fell ill from the flu virus. Doctors were brought in to help provide care, though the indigenous people were initially hesitant to accept the treatment and vaccination. Unfortunately, these people returned to their village without warning. Medical officials are now highly concerned that they will transmit disease to the others which could kill a substantial number of their tribe.

“This news could hardly be more worrying – not only have these people confirmed they suffered violent attacks from outsiders in Peru, but they have apparently already caught flu,” stated Stephen Corry, director of an indigenous people activist group, Survival International. “The nightmare scenario is that they return to their former villages carrying flu with them. It’s a real test of Brazil’s ability to protect these vulnerable groups. Unless a proper and sustained medical program is immediately put in place, the result could be a humanitarian catastrophe.”

In addition to the flu, it is possible that other diseases were picked up during their time of contact. FUNAI is sending a team of health professionals to seek out the tribe and deliver medication, but that help won’t arrive until next month. Until then, officials will have to hope that the disease didn’t spread through the rest of the tribe. Additionally, the people are still threatened by those conducting criminal activity.

"Both Peru and Brazil gave assurances to stop the illegal logging and drug trafficking, which are pushing uncontacted Indians into new areas. They've failed. The traffickers even took over a government installation meant to monitor their behavior," Corry said. "The uncontacted Indians now face the same genocidal risk from disease and violence which has characterized the invasion and occupation of the Americas over the last five centuries. No one has the right to destroy these Indians."

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