Epidemic fears looms as 80% of Indigenous Amazon tribe fall ill

More than a hundred Indigenous individuals residing in Brazil’s Javari valley have been identified with symptoms resembling the flu, sparking concerns over the potential escalation into an epidemic.

The valley, where Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira and journalist Dom Phillips lost their lives in 2022, is home to the largest concentration of Indigenous people in voluntary isolation and those recently contacted worldwide. The Korubo people, initially contacted by government officials in 1996, maintain minimal interaction with other Indigenous groups and local authorities.

“The vulnerability of this community is exceedingly high; any infection could rapidly escalate into an epidemic,” remarked Manoel Chorimpa, a local leader and advisor at OPI, an organization dedicated to safeguarding Indigenous groups in voluntary isolation and those recently exposed to urbanization.

According to healthcare workers operating in the area, among the 101 individuals from the Korubo community displaying epidemic symptoms, 22 cases have progressed to pneumonia, with 15 of those affected being under nine years old. With just 121 individuals comprising the community, the vast majority have been affected. The COVID-19 pandemic also heavily impacted the community in 2022.

To tackle the challenge of providing healthcare to these remote communities, Pereira had proposed a health boat, which became a reality a year after his demise. However, the boat, now managed by the health ministry, remains stationary along the banks of the Ituí River, necessitating patients to travel there for treatment.

“This has essentially defeated the boat’s purpose,” noted Luisa Suriani, another OPI advisor. “When someone falls ill and travels there, the entire family accompanies them, setting up camp on the riverbank, facilitating the spread of diseases.”

The team aboard the boat, typically comprising one or two doctors, a nurse, cook, and boat driver, faces numerous challenges including insufficient space, extreme heat, leaks during rain, and noise from the generator. Additionally, they have encountered shortages of medical supplies.

Videos recorded in March depicted patients seeking shelter from heavy rain under plastic tents near the health boat, revealing the inadequate conditions they face.

Besides grappling with flu outbreaks, the Javari people confront high rates of malaria and diarrhea, exacerbated by limited access to sanitation in less than a fifth of villages. The health ministry reported 134 deaths between 2018 and 2022, with 34% of them being infants.

While the recent outbreak hasn’t resulted in any reported deaths yet, and several patients have been discharged, the ongoing invasion by illegal miners, loggers, fishers, hunters, and drug gangs continues to adversely affect the health and well-being of Indigenous communities in the Amazon.

Despite hopes ignited by the new presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2023 and the establishment of the first ministry of Indigenous peoples, little tangible change has been witnessed in the Javari valley since the deaths of Pereira and Phillips.

Eliésio Marubo, an Indigenous advocate, expressed disappointment at the lack of substantial assistance reaching the region beyond occasional government enforcement operations. He continues to live in fear due to criminal groups in the area.

Efforts are underway to develop a protection plan for the Javari valley, emphasizing the persistent threats of illegal mining and deforestation. Deforestation rates surged in 2023, and the significant invasion of fishers and hunters into areas inhabited by isolated Indigenous communities remains a pressing concern.

As reports highlight the continued presence of invaders in the region, Indigenous people must navigate the same river routes as criminal groups to access limited medical care, further exacerbating their challenges.

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