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Amazon Indians’ Doctor with Coronavirus Brings Fear of an Extermination

Pataxó Indian from the village Nao Xoha, in Minas Gerais state, Brazil - Washington Alves/Reuters

A doctor working with the largest tribe in the Amazon has tested positive for the coronavirus, Brazil’s Health Ministry said on Friday, ringing alarm bells that the epidemic could spread to vulnerable and remote indigenous communities with devastating effect.

The doctor, who has not been named, had returned from vacation on March 18 to work with the Tikunas, a tribe of more than 30,000 people who live in the upper Amazon near the borders with Colombia and Peru.

He developed a fever later that day and went into isolation, testing positive for the respiratory disease COVID-19 a week later, the ministry said.

Eight tribe members he treated on his first day back working for the indigenous health service Sesai have also been isolated in their homes and are being monitored, the ministry said.

The doctor’s infection is the first confirmed case of the virus directly present in an indigenous village. It raises fears of an outbreak that could be lethal for Brazil’s 850,000 indigenous people that have a history of decimation by diseases brought by Europeans, from smallpox and malaria to the flu.

Health experts say their way of life in communal hamlets under large thatched structures increases the risk of contagion if any single member contracts the new coronavirus. Social isolation is hard for tribes to practice.

The ministry said the doctor had no symptoms when he returned to work using a protective mask and gloves, but quarantined himself as soon as he developed a fever.

News website G1’s columnist Matheus Leitão reported that the doctor is Brazilian and may have caught the virus while vacationing in southern Brazil or on the boat ride up the Amazon to his work place at Santo Antônio do Içá.

So far, Sesai has reported four suspected cases of the coronavirus in indigenous communities, with only one in the Amazon.

But doctors fear the virus could spread fast among tribes whose immune systems often are already weakened by malnutrition, hepatitis B, tuberculosis and diabetes.

About a third of indigenous deaths in Brazil are caused by existing respiratory diseases.

The H1N1 epidemic in 2016 killed hundreds of indigenous people, mainly of the Guaraní tribe in the colder south of Brazil, where about half of them caught the bug.

This article was produced by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit them at http://www.thisisplace.org

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    Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro talks with Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta. The loss of Cuban doctors and huge budget cuts to the rural health service could make indigenous and traditional Amazon communities very vulnerable to the coronavirus. Image courtesy of the Brazilian government. Earlier this month many anthropologists feared FUNAI was going to relax its “no contact” rule, making it easier for outsiders to enter areas with isolated Indians. For the past three decades, only FUNAI’s central body — the General Coordination of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indians (CGIIRC) — could authorize contact. Then on 13 March FUNAI abruptly changed its procedures, allowing each of the 39 regional coordinators the power to grant contact authorization.

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