Scientists and Brazil’s government disagree about whether the isolated Amazon tribespeople who came down with flu after making contact with the outside world last month received adequate medical treatment. At least one scientist fears that the illness is just the start of a health catastrophe for the tribe and blames the government for not taking fuller precautions before the tribespeople slipped back into the forest.
According to new details disclosed by a senior official in Brazil’s Indian affairs department (FUNAI), the seven newly contacted tribespeople told an interpreter that they left their homeland after coming under fire by non-Indians possessing guns. They first exhibited flu symptoms on 30 June, 3 days after their first meeting with government officials in the Brazilian village of Simpatia. The group then vanished into the forest for 4 days.
When they eventually reappeared in Simpatia on 4 July, a government medical team administered flu immunizations. Officials then took the sick tribespeople to a remote frontier post and gave them 6 days of medical treatment. Finally, on 11 July, they returned to their remote forest home, a village that may house as many as 100 individuals.
After these medical interventions, the infected individuals pose no threat to their isolated tribe. So wrote Carlos Travassos, director of FUNAI’s General Coordination Unit of Isolated and Newly Contacted Indians, in a 22 July e-mail to Survival International, a nongovernmental organization based in London that supports tribal people.
But anthropologist Kim Hill of Arizona State University, Tempe, says a health worker or anthropologist should have been sent with the departing individuals to administer antibiotics in the likely event that pneumonia and other secondary bacterial infections spread in the home village. Without properly administered antibiotics, Hill says, “a third to half of the population will die.” Based on his own and other anthropologists’ fieldwork with contacted Amazon tribes, Hill says the flu victims will likely infect others in their tribe with foreign viruses, and other secondary bacterial infections will take their toll in a weakened population. Travassos has declined to speak to Science about this.
Virologist Frederick Hayden of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville says that although he does not know the particulars of this case, he thinks in general that the flu immunizations could do some good. Although the shots are not effective at treating the illness, they could protect the seven tribespeople from future exposure to flu. Moreover, Hayden notes that early treatment with influenza antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu or Relenza, could “shorten the duration of illness and reduce risk of lower respiratory tract infections.” Travassos, however, did not specifically mention such treatment in his e-mail. According to Travassos, FUNAI’s contact team gave the departing hunters and gatherers a primer in what influenza is, how it is spread, and what would happen if they didn’t return to Simpatia or FUNAI’s frontier post for further medical treatment in the event of a new outbreak. But Fiona Watson, research director for Survival International, thinks that the tribespeople may be too afraid to follow this advice. “Often tribal people associate villages with being the host of the infection,” she says. “They think the disease comes from there and they want to get away as soon as possible.”
This reluctance to seek out outside medical help may bode poorly for those who acquire secondary respiratory infections, Hill says. In the mid-1980s, a group of Yora tribespeople who made contact with loggers in their region in the Peruvian Amazon were first infected by influenza and later came down with pneumonia and other secondary infections. Without antibiotics, “the old people died and all the young kids died,” Hill says. A subsequent study by medical anthropologist Glenn Shepard of the Paraense Emilio Goeldi Museum in Belém, Brazil, revealed that some 300 people died, between 50% and 60% of the population.