Uncontacted Amazonian Group Could Face 'Humanitarian Catastrophe' After Catching Flu

Indigenous rights advocates in Brazil are worried about the health and survival of a group of Amazonian Indians that had previously never come in contact with outsiders and which might have contracted the flu – a potentially deadly disease for those who have never been exposed to it.

A group of five men and two women from the Ashaninka tribe became sick with the flu after voluntarily leaving their remote homes in Brazil and making contact with a group of people living in a community in Peru – across the border from Brazil’s Acre state.

The group met with members of a settlement in Simpatia, Peru, on three separate occasions – staying for several hours each time – but on the final visit members of Brazil’s Indian Affairs Department, or FUNAI, noticed that the Ashaninka members were suffering from symptoms of the flu. Uncontacted indigenous groups are highly vulnerable to many diseases and viruses common in the outside world because they either have not developed an immunity or been vaccinated.

"The nightmare scenario is that they return to their former villages carrying flu with them," Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, said in a statement. "It's a real test of Brazil's ability to protect these vulnerable groups.”

The seven Ashaninka were treated for the ailment and vaccinated in case they came in contact with other forms of the flu. They returned to the forest promptly after their treatment.

Past epidemics, especially of the flu and malaria, have decimated indigenous groups living in remote areas of the Amazon, but the issue has plagued regions around the globe ever since the Europeans started methodically exploring the far corners of the world. The Taíno indigenous group on Cuba was completely wiped out, mostly from disease, after Christopher Columbus set-up a post on the island.

“Unless a proper and sustained medical program is immediately put in place, the result could be a humanitarian catastrophe,” Corry said.

Another issue that has plagued indigenous groups in Brazil is illegal logging. While the country has successfully cut down on the problem, FUNAI has complained about incursions into the regions by loggers and also by drug traffickers from Peru.

“There is a huge amount of conflict in the Amazon at the moment,” Rebecca Spooner, a campaign officer for Survival International told the Washington Post.

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