Previously Uncontacted Tribe Now Carrying Flu

For a previously uncontacted tribe in Brazil, a worst case scenario might be unfolding. Anthropologists and medical researchers feared what could happen if an unknown band of Indians made contact with the outside world, and now, one of those fears has been realized. Members of the newly-met group have contracted the flu virus and slipped away into the rainforest.

If they return to their tribe, the flu could spread to non-immunized members and decimate the small, isolated population.

Late last month, approximately seventy members of an unknown tribe came out of the rainforest along the Upper Envira River in the Brazilian state of Acre, making first contact with the outside world through members of a FUNAI (Brazil’s Indian Affairs Department) team.

After some work with linguists who found that the contacted individuals speak a Panoan language, the tribespeople were able to explain that they were violently attacked by outsiders, presumably drug traffickers or loggers engaging in an illegal harvest near the Peru-Brazil border. The tribespeople told FUNAI that they were fired upon.

After three weeks in the company of villagers and the FUNAI team, influenza was transmitted to some of the newcomers –five men and two women. Flu is often lethal to isolated tribes due to a lack of immunity against modern illnesses. Contact with the outside world can prove tragic as seen in cases where previously isolated tribes are wiped out by something as casual as the common cold.

FUNAI announced that its team had treated the infected tribespeople, but the contacted people disappeared back into the dense forest once more, possibly taking the infection with them.

A decimating flu might not be the worst of it. Other communicable illnesses have different infection rates and incubation periods. Each tribesperson who made contact could spread the pathogens for other diseases such as malaria to members of their tribe who did not leave the rainforest.

Chris Fagen, the executive director at Upper Amazon Conservancy in Jackson, Wyoming, has voiced his concerns to Science Magazine.

“We can only hope that the FUNAI team members were able to give out treatment before the sickness was spread to the rest of the tribe in the forest. Only time will tell if they reacted quickly enough to divert a catastrophic epidemic.”

Science Magazine reported that the band has been provisionally identified as belonging to a larger group of Chitonahua (also spelled as Chitonawa). A village of perhaps 100 individuals believed to be Chitonahua was photographed near the Xinane River, not very far from the contact site. The hair styles and body ornamentation of those villagers resemble those seen among the newly contacted group. Adam Bauer-Goulden, president of the Rainforest Rescue Coalition, believes that the newcomers might be from that village.

The Xinane River village spotted in aerial photographs is part of a route used by narcotics smugglers.

There is some concern on the part of Survival International researchers that FUNAI might not be able to quell an epidemic if one develops. Without sufficient medical resources, the Brazilian government could prove incapable of stopping disease from destroying the Indians who came to them for help. It is estimated that there might be 4,000 uncontacted people in the region, all of whom would lack immunity to the flu virus.

FUNAI has said it will send a team of health professionals to find the tribe for medical treatment, but has admitted that help will not be available until next month.

[Image courtesy of FUNAI]

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