CARACAS, Venezuela – Swine flu has appeared among Venezuela's Yanomami Indians, one of the largest isolated indigenous groups in the Amazon, and a doctor said Wednesday that the virus is suspected in seven deaths, including six infants.
The deaths happened in forest villages near Venezuela's border with Brazil over the past 2 1/2 weeks, said Raidan Bernade, a Venezuelan doctor on a team working to contain the outbreak and treat the ill.
Bernade told The Associated Press that doctors confirmed one of those who died had swine flu — a 35-year-old Yanomami woman who doctors believe was pregnant.
Six babies, the oldest of whom was about 1 year old, died from similar symptoms, though samples weren't taken in time to confirm it was swine flu, Bernade said by phone from La Esmeralda, a riverside town at the edge of the vast rain forest territory where the Yanomami live.
He said the victims had fever and coughing at first, and suffered complications from pneumonia.
The deaths were reported Wednesday by the London-based indigenous rights group Survival International, which warned that if not properly contained the virus could spread and cause more deaths among people who are particularly susceptible to disease due to their limited contact with the outside world.
Yamilet Mirabal, the government's deputy minister of indigenous affairs for the region, told the AP she was informed of six Yanomami deaths suspected of being due to swine flu. She said the outbreak was detected about three weeks ago and health officials have taken precautions since to prevent the illness from spreading.
She said suspected swine flu cases appeared in three Yanomami villages — Mavaca, Platanal and Hatakoa — and a Cuban-trained team of Venezuelan doctors known as Battalion 51 was sent to the area to treat the ill and track possible cases.
Two swine flu cases have been confirmed among the ill, Mirabal said.
Doctors have identified more than 3,000 people with various respiratory illnesses in the zone and took samples from those with serious cases, Bernade said.
He said about 110 sick people are being evaluated to see if they might have swine flu, though doctors believe most have a seasonal flu that appears regularly in the area. He said the number of people who are ill has been declining.
It is unclear how swine flu reached the Yanomami.
There are an estimated 28,000 or more Yanomami living in communities on both sides of the Venezuela-Brazil border. They have maintained their language as well as traditions including face paint and wooden facial ornaments piercing their noses, cheeks and lips.
The Yanomami often suffer from malaria and also have seen deaths in the past from outbreaks of illnesses such as measles, yellow fever and hepatitis. In many cases, they have become sick after contact with outsiders.
Last month, Venezuela confirmed there have been 90 deaths nationwide from swine flu, and 1,910 cases of the virus.